We’re “hoping for the best, but planning for the worst”, says the PM, in one of the most optimistic conferences of recent

17 Jul

At today’s press conference, Johnson gave one of his most confident deliveries in recent weeks. As he laid out the next steps for the nation, he managed to be both cautious and hopeful in offering a vision of the future. 

The Prime Minister began by reeling off encouraging statistics about the country’s battle with the Coronavirus. “For three weeks now, the number of cases identified through testing each day has been below 1,000” he announced, adding that SAGE has calculated the R rate to be between 0.7 and 0.9, and that the number of infections was shrinking by five and one per cent every day.

What SAGE hasn’t been as encouraging about, however, is the Government’s plan to reopen workplaces. Yesterday Patrick Vallance, its chief scientific advisor, told MPs at the Commons science committee that there was “absolutely no reason” to change the guidance to stay at home. “A number of companies think it’s not detrimental to productivity and in that situation absolutely no reason I can see to change it”, were his words.

But today Johnson told businesses they have “discretion” over whether they want their employees to return from August 1 – and how they do this safely. Much of this demonstrates, as ConservativeHome has written before, that the Government has never been fully “guided by the science”. Indeed, when Vallance’s absence was remarked upon, the Prime Minister responded “in the end decisions are taken by elected politicians.”

August 1 will also mark the reopening of leisure settings, such as bowling, skating rinks and casinos, as well as allowing close contact services to resume, although nightclubs and soft play areas still need to stay shut.

The Prime Minister explained that some of the approach to Covid-19 has changed in line with new information about its epidemiology and “intelligence on where it is spreading”. Going forward in England, the NHS Test and Trace, alongside the Joint Biosecurity Centre, will be concentrating on “targeted, local action”.

Johnson highlighted that this approach had been used in Weston-Super-Mare and Kirklees, as well as in Bradford and Blackburn with Darwen. He added that restrictions in Leicester would soon be relaxed, based on the fact that “the percentage of people testing positive” fell “from a weekly rate of 12.2 per cent on 29 June to 4.8 per cent yesterday.”

He assured people that he understood that local measures would be “hard going”, but that “there is no point shutting down a city in one part of the country to contain an outbreak in another part of the country.” 

It reinforces Johnson’s point about the Government’s strategy shifting with new data. Some will remember that on April 29, Matt Hancock told reporters: “We did think about moving with London and the Midlands first because they were the more advanced in terms of number of cases, but we decided that we are really in this together”. But all that has changed drastically.

Overall Johnson’s speech emphasised a transition of power from central Government to other bodies – namely, businesses and local councils. From tomorrow the latter will be able to “close specific premises, shut public outdoor spaces, and cancel events” at their will, in the hope that this will speed up how quickly Coronavirus is identified and isolated.

While the Government and scientific bodies will get little credit for this, they have clearly gone to enormous lengths to step up preparedness in case of further Coronavirus outbreaks, particularly a dreaded second wave in winter. Data suggest the country is now carrying out more antigen tests (to identify if someone currently has the virus) than anywhere else in Europe.

Furthermore, it has set up 200 mobile units for testing around the country, hugely increased ventilators (from 9,000 to nearly 30,000) and is rolling out the biggest flu vaccination programme in the history of the NHS, on top of an additional £3 billion of funding for the NHS.

From ConservativeHome’s perspective, this was one of the most reassuring press conferences from the Prime Minister, showing intense preparations that have been going on behind the scenes, while emphasising one of Johnson’s main strengths: optimism.