Dr Chris Newton is a historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.
Boris Johnson announced on Thursday evening that the Government will impose new Coronavirus restrictions in parts of Greater Manchester, East Lancashire, and West Yorkshire a few hours before it was enforced at midnight.
In addition, on Friday, the Prime Minister announced that he is postponing the reopening of “high-risk settings” (including casinos, skating rinks, and bowling alleys) in England, originally planned for August 1, for a fortnight.
Keir Starmer and Labour, while agreeing with the restrictions in the north, criticised how the announcement was made, which they claimed was on Twitter and at short notice, and called on the Government for “urgent clarity and explanation”.
The criticisms about the short notice the Government gave for the North of England have some merit, although the Government has published clarifications and answers on its website.
Moreover, Labour’s condemnation should be tempered by the fact that swift action in response to spikes was what it had been demanding.
Another criticism, especially on social media and one raised during the Prime Minister’s press conference on Friday, is that these announcements represent the failure of Johnson’s plan for easing lockdown. They show that the Prime Minister has been too optimistic, that easing lockdown has been premature, and that he should not have announced his timetable so far in advance.
This argument is, however, less convincing. The recent measures should not surprise anyone who follows the Government’s statements, for local lockdowns and timetable postponements were built into its strategy.
On July 17, Johnson set out his plan for further relaxations, including the re-openings on July 25 and those originally set for August 1. During this statement, he warned:
“Now I must stress, the timetable I am about to set out is conditional. It is contingent on every one of us staying alert and acting responsibly. It relies on our continued success in controlling the virus. And we will not proceed if doing so risks a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS”.
Johnson also acknowledged that: “I know some will say this plan is too optimistic, that the risks are too great”. Nonetheless, he accepted that his plans would have to change if there was a significant rise in the infection rate:
“And of course, if they are right in saying that, and we cannot exclude that they are, let me reassure them, and reassure you: that we will not hesitate at any stage to put on the brakes”.
He reiterated that “from May 11 onwards, this plan has been conditional, and it remains conditional”. Johnson also set out the Government’s guidance for containing future outbreaks. These included giving new powers to local authorities, as well as establishing powers for central government intervention.
Therefore, at no point did the Prime Minister say the timetable was guaranteed, and the Government has not announced anything it said it wouldn’t do.
Johnson has “put on the brakes” as he indicated.
As Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, stated on Friday: “we all know that what we have to try and do is to get to the absolute edge of what we can do in terms of opening up society and the economy without getting to the point where the virus starts to take off again”.
No-one knows where that “absolute edge” is until it has been reached. Faced with a dramatically shrinking economy and rising unemployment, the Government tested what was possible until it reached that edge. In order to balance opening up the economy as well as keeping infections as low possible, its approach has been incremental, flexible, and fluid.
Its strategy was always going to be modified by unexpected developments, what military theorists call “friction”.
This is a crisis that no post-war government has faced. Coming out of lockdown puts us into unknown territory, and no doubt the Government has made mistakes purely because it is dealing with a new, uncertain situation.
It is right that it is held to account over its decisions and communications during this crisis in time.
However, analysis and criticism should not only take the enormous challenge into account, but also be based on what the Government has actually stated.
Those expecting that the easing of lockdown would follow a simple, linear path are being unrealistic and are not portraying the Government’s plan accurately.