The UK reported a further 1805 cases of coronavirus on Wednesday, and sadly another 176 deaths to Covid-19. These islands are still very much in the midst of the pandemic, and yet, in England, the Prime Minister Boris Johnsons has lifted the curtain on lockdown. Pupils and teachers are back to school, many people have returned to work, people can gather once again in groups of up to six, outdoor activities have resumed. Parliament has also returned. But already there are signs that we are not out of the woods yet. It emerged on Tuesday that Cabinet Minister Alok Sharma, who was noticeably perspiring heavily in parliament earlier this week, has been diagnosed with Covid-19 and is self-isolating. The virus is still spreading throughout the cabinet.
The symbolism of this moment has not been overlooked. Experts and politicians alike have commented of late that the lockdown in England has been lifted too early. Several members of the UK government’s scientific advisory group have raised concerns, saying that the lid on a ‘boiling pan’ was being lifted and that the country could once again ‘lose control’ of the epidemic. Sir Jeremy Farrar said “COVID-19 is spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England”, as the disease is still spreading through the population. He said lifting restrictions could only be justified if infection rates dropped, and the government’s testing and tracing initiatives were fully operational.
Concern has also been expressed by opposition leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who, after being criticised for not condemning the government’s approach so far to the pandemic, has recently changed his tune. He said this week in a Guardian interview he was putting Boris Johnson ‘on notice’, and that he was worried that a difficult situation had been made ‘10 times worse’ by government incompetence. Starmer warned that if Johnson didn’t ‘get a grip’ on the crisis, the country faced a second wave of the pandemic. Although for weeks he had called for the Prime Minister to publish his ‘exit strategy’ out of the crisis, we were now being provided with an ‘exit without a strategy’.
Speaking of government ‘mismanagement’ in recent weeks which has resulted in a loss of public trust, Starmer even suggested that the decision to lift lockdown restrictions so early may have been influenced by a desire to deflect attention from the scandal over Dominic Cummings which has seen Johnson’s ratings plummet in the polls. The matter has done huge damage to both the Prime Minister and his party of late; just at a time when the government needs maximum trust from the public, Johnson has lost it by putting his advisor’s future before that of the public mood, after Cummings broke the lockdown rules. All that is required now for Conservative support to dwindle completely, is for the government to miscalculate over the pandemic.
In contrast to England’s ‘mismanagement’, Scotland is taking a more measured path out of lockdown. Although Nicola Sturgeon has also allowed outdoor activities to take place again, such as golfing and fishing, and said that people can meet up outdoors in small groups, that is about as far as the changes go. Schools will not be opened until August in Scotland, and pupils will attend on a part-time basis only. So far the messaging in Scotland has remained as it was from the beginning of the outbreak, ‘Stay At Home’ as opposed to the updated ‘Stay Alert’ slogan from Westminster which caused more confusion than anything else when it was first announced.
Apart from the obvious practical benefits of taking a slower path out of lockdown, in terms of reducing the infection rate, there is also the political gain that can be made. Nicola Sturgeon is already scoring far higher than Boris Johnson in the polls, and if her approach to the pandemic proves to be more successful in the long term, it will only boost the nationalist cause. 80 percent of people already support Sturgeon’s lockdown according to the results of one survey, and although this doesn’t directly translate into support for Scottish independence, polls indicate that support for self-determination is growing year on year.
Not that this seems to particularly bother Prime Minister Johnson. It didn’t bother him during the Brexit negotiations, when it was clear that Scotland didn’t support leaving the European Union, and yet its protestations went unheard. This is a Prime Minister that quite frankly doesn’t care much for public opinion, even if it results in the break-up of the UK. Johnson is driven mainly by self-interest and therefore, when it came to the issue of Dominic Cummings, he acted in order to save his own future, which it seems, is greatly dependent on the advice of his advisor. When it comes to dealing with coronavirus, therefore, we would be mistaken to think that the health of the public is at the forefront of his mind. I can only hope to be proven otherwise…
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.