Faced with hard science, British PM Johnson hopes lockdown saves Christmas

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – In the end, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to face facts.

In reluctantly announcing a second lockdown for England, he brought out his scientists to explain why it was necessary. As Prime Minister, he wants to save Christmas.

After all, it was last December that he celebrated a landslide election win that was going to help get Brexit done.

That was before the arrival of Covid-19, which not only almost killed him but turned his government inside out.

His ruling Conservative party is split on how to tackle the virus: does it want to respect personal freedom and keep businesses going? Or can it find a way to balance its beliefs against the reality of a disease that has killed more than 46,000 Britons and created a massive health crisis?

Those tensions were on display in how the news broke – via a leak – that England was following the path of many European countries.

As recently as Friday (Oct 30), Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who stood in for Mr Johnson when he was sick with the virus, described such a move as “desperately unfair”.

From the outside, the management of the crisis appears chaotic. The scramble to arrange a news conference that kept getting delayed reflects the difficulties Mr Johnson’s office had in squaring it all off with different stakeholders, including the Treasury, which controls the purse strings.

Last minute

Mr Johnson had to get on board his popular Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Rishi Sunak, to extend by a month a generous and groundbreaking programme that paid employees as much as 80 per cent of their salaries.

Mr Sunak had previously planned to replace it from today with a cheaper programme in the name of old-school Tory commitment to fiscal prudence.

But on Saturday, the second wave of coronavirus defeated Mr Johnson after modelling by his scientific advisers showed the National Health Service risked becoming overwhelmed by early December.

That forced him into the latest in a series of about-turns as he ordered a partial lockdown in England, closing pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops for 28 days from Thursday in an effort to protect the venerated state-funded institution from being swamped.

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Political risk

The reversal is a moment of danger for the Prime Minister that will increase the cost to the Treasury of bailing out businesses and workers, and risks alienating his own party.

While Parliament is expected to endorse the new restrictions in a vote this week, with the opposition Labour Party likely supportive, that doesn’t mean Mr Johnson has the full backing of all Tory lawmakers.

One influential Tory member of Parliament sees that with such stark figures, it made sense to shut down and extend aid.

But another said the rank-and-file had little faith that Mr Johnson’s plans will work: “That’s what we were told last time.”

Indeed, there are few guarantees it will succeed, especially with a restive public that is far less willing to comply and with the economic costs mounting.

“No one wants to be imposing these measures anywhere,” Mr Johnson said in a televised address on Saturday night. “But we’ve got to be humble in the face of nature.”

He cited data suggesting hospitals in parts of England could run out of capacity in a matter of weeks, with deaths reaching several thousand a day.

Making sense of yet another U-turn is hard for Mr Johnson, a man who is used to charming his way out of difficult situations.

The Prime Minister had previously called blanket restrictions the “nuclear” option that risked being economically “disastrous”.

He rejected a proposal in September by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies for a two- to three-week lockdown coinciding with October school holidays to rein in transmission.

Ministers have cited the potential cost of another lockdown as another reason to persist with a more localised approach.

The bill for government measures to help businesses and workers so far likely exceeds £200 billion (S$354 billion).

The new measures threaten to derail, or even reverse, the nation’s already sluggish recovery from the impact of the first wave of the virus, which caused the deepest and sharpest recession in three centuries.

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Central bank muscle

The lockdown will reinforce expectations that the Bank of England will this week vote to boost its asset purchase programme as the economy slows.

Bloomberg Economics was already predicting an increase of £100 billion to £845 billion.

So what convinced him to change his mind?

Documents published on Friday showed the virus tracking worse than even the worst-case scenario projected by the government’s scientific advisers.

The Premier spoke with top Cabinet ministers later on Friday afternoon and, after news of his deliberations leaked overnight, he decided to act.

He convened a virtual meeting of the full Cabinet on Saturday afternoon attended also by Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

The data presented to Cabinet made for grim reading: As of Oct 28, 1 per cent of people in England had Covid, compared to 1 in 2,300 in July.

The incidence had doubled in October.

Projections showed that on the current trajectory, the virus would overwhelm the NHS in the first week of December, even after accounting for surge capacity built up during the first wave of the pandemic.

Back then, the government spent £220 million setting up seven new emergency facilities known as Nightingale Hospitals.

After Cabinet, Mr Johnson knew there were people in his party he had to speak to and get over the line.

One of them was Mr Steve Baker, an influential Tory backbencher who has voiced concerns at the economic and social toll caused by restrictions and was among the most likely to stir trouble.

Mr Baker tweeted he was “grateful” for the chance to challenge the data and acknowledged the Premier faced “exceptionally difficult choices”.

That left Mr Johnson, ever the optimist, to talk up the holiday season, in the news conference and then as a parting shot on social media.

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