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Winter Is Coming for Boris Johnson

Winter Is Coming for Boris Johnson

Thursday, 23 July, 2020 - 04:45

Winter is coming, but which one? UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged last week that there are two possible scenarios: a mild season on the coronavirus front or a viral blizzard. He’d like Britons to start investing, spending and moving around as if the end of 2020 will be benign. He has promised that the government will, however, be ready for the other eventuality too.


Politically, it’s an appealing stance. It allows Johnson to claim he is helping to reopen the economy and save jobs, while also prioritizing public health. It’s a difficult one for businesses and individuals, however. It offers little concrete guidance on what to do and raises the question of whether Johnson has learned from his previous pandemic mistakes.


And which scenario emerges matters a lot. Here’s what a “Good Winter” might look like:


It’s February 2021 and life has become more colorful again. The Genesis Reunion tour was great. You occasionally work from home, but you’re back to the office quite a lot; nothing beats the synaptic surges of workplace banter. Her feet are remembering what it’s like to wear shoes not designed for running, his collared shirts no longer look pointless in their dry cleaners’ plastic. Restaurants require bookings weeks in advance. You’ve started to say “crazy busy” again when friends ask how it’s going.


The virus hasn’t been banished, but you know the drill: mask up on transport, squirt the hand gel, respect private space, open the windows even if it’s cold. It’s not perfect — one sniffle and your entire household goes into isolation until a test is done — but compared to the mayhem in the US. (now Joe Biden’s problem) or the dire events in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Britons have it good.


If the Good Winter is what’s in store, Johnson will have won big. People will be relieved to have normalcy restored. Business confidence will grow, setting aside for now the question of Britain’s departure from the European Union’s single market at the end of the year.


It’s only when you consider what a “Bad Winter” looks like that the stakes become clearer:


Here we go again. British schools have closed once more, in what has been an exasperating stop-start year. Europe has said “no thank you” to flights from the UK. Every sniffle feels like a death sentence. Johnson’s promised 500,000 daily tests were delivered, but they’re not covering everyone who needs to test a seasonal symptom. Some people don’t bother anyhow, convinced they only have the regular flu.


You went back to the office, but it wasn’t the same. Pret was closed. Those purposeful blocks of glass and steel that make up the City’s landscape look forlorn. Riding the London Underground, once a grim contact sport played by people in pinstripes, is the most pleasant part of the day, though it’s unnerving how few staff are around. Just as the Expert Advisory Group of the Academy of Medical Sciences warned back in their July report, the change in season proved friendly to Covid as people started spending less time outdoors and more time cohabiting smaller spaces with less ventilation.


What’s worse, the National Health Service isn’t coping. The focus on Covid created a backlog of millions of non-critical cases. Cancers aren’t being diagnosed and treatments have fallen behind, but it’s the combination of the regular flu season and the Covid flu season that’s the literal killer. The flu vaccination program was expanded to reduce the number of other flu-stricken patients, but there wasn’t enough capacity to cover all age groups.

Mental health has also frayed because of months of lockdown, job insecurity and income loss. British winters are always dark, and this one feels interminable.


Far from uniting the country, the virus has contributed to divisions. After Scots noticed that their government did a better job of handling the virus, support for Scottish independence went up. And while much of the poorer north of England remains shut down, there are more Covid-free zones in the wealthier south, breeding resentment and forcing the government to pile on more spending commitments.


Johnson can’t say which winter scenario will prevail, and Britain may get a combination of both. The problem is that the “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” policy doesn’t provide much clarity for business.


There are pressures on Johnson to encourage people to get back to work and onto public transport. The costs of a prolonged recession are enormous, and the government spending splurge will have to be paid for somehow. It’s notable how Johnson is no longer saying that every decision is driven, or even guided, by the science.


The government’s top scientists are being more cautious. A few hours after Johnson’s Friday press conference, his chief medical advisor, Chris Whitty, told a House of Lords committee that social distancing remains important and that lockdown measures may have to be reintroduced in the winter. Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance told lawmakers last week that it remains better for people to work from home — a warning that reportedly caused Johnson to moderate plans to urge people back to work.


Those nuances won’t be lost on companies. It’s fine being told that the government has a plan in case Bad Winter comes, but do employers really want to risk sending people back to the office? Unions are warning that employees shouldn’t be made to return to unsafe work environments.


Compared to the level of denial from the US government, the UK has shown it can learn. Britain is testing a lot more, planning to have a contact-tracing app in place this winter, putting more money into the NHS, purchasing loads of protective equipment and giving local governments the power to lock down areas of infection.


But the countries that have emerged from lockdown successfully are those that tackled transmission aggressively from the start and won the trust of the public. It will take a lot to move beyond Britain’s pandemic-management disasters of the past few months.


Winter is Johnson’s second big Covid test. He must not repeat the failures of the first.


Bloomberg


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