LONDON – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent much of the summer urging people to return to offices and restaurants, aiming for a “significant return to normal” by Christmas as the coronavirus appeared to be receding.
This week’s message could hardly be more different.
On Tuesday, Johnson announced sweeping new restrictions in England that are expected to apply for the next six months – an attempt to stop the virus as it threatens to grow across the country in the fall and winter.
Bars, pubs, and restaurants are forced to close at 10 p.m., employees and customers are fined £ 200 (about $ 256) for not wearing masks, and people are again asked to work from home If they can, the Prime Minister said in an address to Parliament.
“I’m sorry to say that like in Spain and France we have reached a dangerous turning point,” he said, referring to similar thrusts across Europe. “This is the moment we have to act.”
He told people to expect a “greater police presence” on the streets, with the “ability to use military assistance” to help enforce the new rules – a drastic move in the UK, where law enforcement is common is more reserved.
It’s a far cry from the blanket March and April lockdown that largely prevented people from leaving their homes and stalled most of the economy. Schools and businesses will be able to stay open “Covid Compliant,” he said.
But it will be broader than the local lockdowns that have been restricted this summer in parts of the UK where infection rates have risen.
Later on Tuesday, Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the country’s semi-independent government, went even further than Johnson. He introduced many of the same measures and banned households from mixing indoors. Similar measures had previously been introduced in parts of Wales and Northern Ireland.
The day before, Johnson’s two senior advisors gave their own grim assessments during a television briefing. They warned that the estimated 6,000 daily cases in the UK could hit 50,000 by October if not checked.
“If we do not change course, we will face a very difficult problem,” said England Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty on Monday.
After monitoring more than 41,000 coronavirus deaths – most in Europe – Johnson and his government have come under heavy criticism from all sides.
Back in March, he was accused of acting too slowly to introduce restrictions, not providing enough protective equipment for health workers, and hypocrisy after refusing to fire his top advisor Dominic Cummings, who was at the height of the outbreak against the Had violated blocking rules.
But even as cases and deaths fell, traditional allies and enemies said Johnson, who won a tumultuous election victory in December, was guilty of a number of missteps.
“Tory Backbencher knows, his cabinet knows, we all know: he’s just not serious, he’s just not able,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, in a speech on Tuesday in which he referred to conservative politicians.
A major criticism of the government has been the inability to develop a successful test, track and isolation system. This has baffled epidemiologists who suggest the UK is the sixth largest economy in the world and has had six months to get it right.
The lack of testing capacity means that many people are unable to get one or are directed to drive hundreds of kilometers to the nearest testing center.
Johnson has missed a number of deadlines and has promised that all results will be available within 24 hours by the end of June. Government figures released last week showed that currently only a third come back within a day – and the average waiting time is increasing.
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Dido Harding, the UK government’s track and trace program director, admitted last week that the demand for testing “is well beyond the capacity we have”.
This made returns to schools in September chaotic as entire classes were sent home to be isolated for 14 days if only one child developed symptoms.
“’Working from home when you can’ is back and should always be the government’s message. tweeted Gabriel Scally, Honorary Professor of Public Health at the University of Bristol. “Your attempt to get people back to the downtown offices should never have happened. It is extremely important to be clear and consistent – I wish they were!”
Johnson’s natural allies are also appalled.
More libertarian conservatives in his own party fear that he is further jeopardizing the economy by going as far as he has done: risking another spike in unemployment, undermining civil liberties, and the education and well-being of others Endangering children.
All of this has created a rift between “economic hawks” and “health pigeons” in Johnson’s own cabinet. Tuesday’s announcement appears to be an attempt to sail a delicate line between them.