Six weeks ago, Boris Johnson’s top team of scientific advisers came to him with a chilling warning. He had to bring in an immediate two-week national lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from spiraling out of control, they said, and a failure to do so would likely result in what they called “a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences.”
The warning went largely ignored. Only one of the raft of measures proposed by the advisory group—telling people to work at home if possible—was implemented by the government. Stricter rules were brought in for some virus hotspots in England, but Johnson refused to consider a national lockdown, and even publicly mocked the idea as “the height of absurdity” that would inflict unnecessary “misery” on the nation.
But the scientists were right. On Sept. 21, the day they delivered their warning, the United Kingdom reported 5,596 new COVID-19 cases and 29 related deaths. On Friday, 274 people died, and there was a further 24,405 confirmed cases. As predicted, the virus had spun out of the government’s control, and advisory group once again intervened.
In a Friday meeting reported by the Times of London, the government’s scientific advisers told Johnson that their data foretold that hospitals would become overwhelmed by December, and that deaths could soon peak at 4,000 a day—four times worse than at the height of the pandemic in the spring. After weeks of delay, the warning left him with no choice but to impose the lockdown he had flatly dismissed just days ago.
Not only that, but, as the situation is now so much worse than it was in mid-September, Johnson’s lockdown will have to last for twice the length of time than the two weeks initially recommended by his scientists if it’s to have any chance of denting the spread of the virus.
“I am afraid that no responsible prime minister can ignore the message of those figures,” he explained to the nation, adding that the coronavirus is now spreading faster than in the “reasonable worst case scenario” presented to him in September. “Unless we act, we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day... A peak of mortality, alas, far bigger than the one we saw in April,” warned the prime minister.
As of Thursday, England will go into a month-long lockdown—and government officials were already warning Sunday that it could go on even longer if it fails to cut the rate of infection. Pubs, restaurants, gyms, non-essential shops and places of worship will be closed, although, as is the case in other European lockdowns, schools and universities will stay open. The hope, as Johnson explained at his Halloween press conference, is to drive down infections in time to allow families to gather at Christmas.
The other three countries of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—control their own pandemic responses through their devolved governments, so aren’t affected by the announcement. Their three leaders all took swifter preventative action than Johnson and, as a result, aren’t in as critical a position as England and they have no plans to align with Johnson’s November-long lockdown.
Johnson’s announcement has been attacked both from those who think it goes way too far, and those who think it has come way too late. The opposition leader, Labour’s Keir Starmer, called for a lockdown three weeks ago. He wrote: “The delay in introducing these restrictions will come at an economic cost and a human cost. I’m glad that the government has finally taken this decision—but it should have done so weeks ago.”
A mutiny is underway among Johnson’s Conservative colleagues, who believed the prime minister when he insisted for weeks that he wouldn’t ask businesses across the country to shut down. Iain Duncan Smith, a former party leader, described Johnson’s announcement as a “body blow to the British people” and accused his leader of “giving in to the scientific advisers” who had been “publicly lecturing” the government.
The problem Johnson is now facing for the second time is that, throughout his political career, he has relied on personal popularity, and his ultra-confidence and optimism. While those have served him well in many situations, his reluctance to do anything to damage his popularity, and to overlook scientific advice and try to forge his own path, is what had led to a delayed lockdown that has infuriated almost everyone.
Johnson has always tried to govern by hoping for the best—as his scientific advisers have now proved twice during this pandemic, the prime minister needs to spend more of his time pre-empting the worst.