Boris Johnson gambles on lifting lockdown to save UK’s economy

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Boris Johnson has launched the biggest gamble of his premiership, announcing that July will see a dramatic lifting of the lockdown measures imposed in England in March. The goal is to save the economy. The risk is that it causes a second spike in coronavirus infections.

At a news conference on Tuesday evening — the final such daily event, Johnson said, in a signal that he wants Britons to stop feeling that they’re living through a crisis — the prime minister was clear that he took full responsibility for the decision. The scientists flanking him were were clear about the dangers, and warned that the virus will be with the U.K. into 2021.

The problem faced by Johnson is balancing the potential harm of increased virus spread with the damage being done to Britain’s economy every day of the lockdown. Earlier Tuesday, government figures showed that the two main work-support programs had so far cost more than 30 billion pounds ($38 billion). Ministers worry about how many of the 9.2 million jobs being supported will disappear once the programs end.

Johnson’s message to the public was clear: Get out of your homes and get spending. “It’s great to see people out shopping again,” he said. “I can’t wait to go to a pub or a restaurant. People need to enjoy themselves.”

Johnson Re-Opens England’s Pubs But Scientists Warn of Long Haul

At the end of his answer, he inserted a crucial caveat: “I also want to see everybody being careful and following the guidance.” And he repeated that if the virus began to spread again, he would reimpose restrictions.

But his emphasis was clear. Pubs, restaurants and hotels can reopen from July 4. To give their businesses a chance of working, the advice to people to keep a 2 meter distance from others has been changed: The distance is now 1 meter, so long as other mitigating measures are in place.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will make their own decisions about how and when to ease the lockdown.

This means that for all Johnson’s drive to get life back to normal, it will still feel very different in July. Pubs will have to introduce table service and ordered queues, to replace the usual crowd at the bar trying to catch the landlord’s eye. Churches can open, but without singing. Weddings can go ahead, but with a maximum of 30 guests.

In early March, the scientists advising the government warned that to lock down too early would risk a frustrated public starting to simply ignore it. Now the fear is in the opposite direction, that consumers will be too nervous to come out and spend.

A poll from YouGov in mid-June found only 26% of people saying they’d be comfortable visiting a pub — though twice that said they’d be happy to sit in the garden of one. In an effort to boost confidence, ministers spent Tuesday tweeting about their enthusiasm to get into a pub again — even Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who doesn’t drink.

Cautions, Calculations

But if the politicians were sending one signal, the scientists were sending a quite different one. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, standing alongside Johnson, warned: “If people hear a distorted version of what’s been said that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ and start to behave in ways that they normally would have before the virus, then we will get an uptick, for sure.”

Johnson’s calculation is that the U.K. is better-placed than it was in March to face such a rise. Its testing capacity is greatly expanded, it has many more ventilators, and the treatment of Covid-19 is better understood.

But despite Johnson’s attempt to argue that the country was proceeding on the course to ease the lockdown that he set out in May, things have not been going entirely to plan. In the last seven days, an average 121 people died from the disease a day, and the average number of infections detected was 1,147. The mobile phone app that was supposed to sit at the heart of the contact-tracing program is nowhere in sight.

And also on Tuesday, the Office for National Statistics reported that between Jan. 1 and June 12, there were 54,402 more deaths in England and Wales than average, another sign that the U.K. has been the hardest-hit country in Europe.

While Johnson was trying to get the country to move on from the virus, there was a reminder that elsewhere too, politics can be difficult. Despite having a parliamentary majority of 80, the prime minister suffered his first defeat, on a vote about disciplinary procedures for members of the House of Commons, after 45 Conservatives voted against the party whip, including his predecessor Theresa May and Treasury Minister Penny Mordaunt. And on Wednesday, the opposition Labour Party is calling a debate on Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s handling of a planning application made by a Tory donor.