The Guardian view on Covid curbs ending: Tory MPs are happy; many Britons are not | Editorial
Boris Johnson, claimed his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, lurched between policies “like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”. Mr Cummings has an axe to grind with his old boss, but the image is not a new one. David Cameron’s former spin doctor said Mr Johnson “wobbled all over the place like a wonky shopping trolley” over which side to back for the EU referendum. Six in 10 voters think the prime minister can’t make up his mind.
The zigzagging between options, whether in respect of Brexit or the Covid-19 response, is a feature, rather than a bug, in the Johnson government’s operating system. A desperate rush to drop Covid rules in England next week has only emphasised the dangers of delay and indecision in the face of a lethal, highly infectious pathogen.
People want clear, consistent signalling in a pandemic; the public cannot gauge the threat of a disease. The government has the ability to track and contain outbreaks. It is supposed to plan a collective response, providing reassurance that it will deal with the pandemic if the public stick to the rules. But from 19 July, Mr Johnson says Covid compliance will be a matter of personal responsibility. To ram the message home, the government is withdrawing pandemic safety nets. It’s making no visible effort to install ventilation systems in offices and schools. Making public health measures a matter of individual choice sends a message that they’re no longer important. There is no point in telling people to go slowly without imposing a speed limit. This messaging will just lead to more infections, hospitalisations and even deaths.
Yet ministers had been riding a runaway trolley towards disaster since they decided to paint “freedom day” on its side. In the last week, the government has been forced into policy shifts and U-turns. No one in the cabinet could defend Mr Johnson’s claims that the link between coronavirus and serious disease had been “severed”. Ministers who declared they wouldn’t be wearing masks once curbs were lifted are now having to warn that face coverings should be worn indoors. The prime minister was moved not by science but falling support in opinion polls. Dropping a “big bang” approach, Mr Johnson now talks of going as slowly as we can.
The chaos in airport terminals this week appears to be a result of the government lifting travel restrictions before proper consideration was given to self-isolation rules. The whole mess of policymaking has had the opposite effect to what the government wanted. Rather than welcome the changes, many seem just to want to hunker down. Who can blame them?
It is true that the virus today is a different threat from the one encountered last year: far fewer Covid sufferers need to go into hospital and those who do are younger. But with potentially thousands suffering debilitating long Covid, and the threat of a new more transmissible variant emerging, there appears to be no ministerial plan B – only an urge to pursue steps that risk such disastrous outcomes.
Mr Cummings is no longer in government. But he made a point that Mr Johnson ought to remember. One of the “core problems of the Tory party brand”, said Mr Cummings in 2017, was that almost all British people love the NHS but most Tory MPs don’t care about it. “The public has cottoned on to that,” he said. Last week the health secretary claimed that lifting restrictions would make Britons healthier. He now warns that doing so may leave a record 13 million on NHS waiting lists. If Mr Johnson’s gamble fails and the health service ends up in a terrible state, then the country will suffer – and the Conservatives will not manage to escape blame.