Boris Johnson’s mantra in the first phase of the coronavirus crisis was that he was “following the science”; on Tuesday it became clear that the prime minister is taking a serious political risk by taking a different approach.
A proposal by Mr Johnson’s scientific advisers on September 21 that Britain should immediately go into a short and tough “circuit breaker” lockdown was a defining moment for the government.
By refusing to countenance such a lockdown last month — or a raft of other harsh social and economic restrictions proposed by his scientific advisers — Mr Johnson left himself open to renewed claims that he has acted too slowly to contain Covid-19.
For now the economists — championed by chancellor Rishi Sunak — have the upper hand, but Labour leader Keir Starmer’s decision to back the scientists’ call for a circuit breaker lockdown has raised the stakes.
On Monday Mr Johnson, flanked by Mr Sunak, announced a three-tier system of Covid-19 alerts for England, but it fell far short of the measures demanded by members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said the “professional view” was that the basic restrictions for areas placed on “very high” alert — tier 3 — were not sufficient to contain coronavirus.
Mr Johnson’s split from the scientists is risky. A YouGov poll found that public opinion still supports a tough approach: only 14 per cent said current restrictions went too far; 42 per cent said they did not go far enough.
Mr Sunak has become frustrated at the idea he is putting the economy before health. He has said he is considering a broader context about the impact of restrictions on health, education and the public finances.
One colleague of the chancellor said: “To the extent there has been a split in the cabinet, it is with certain ministers who have a certain myopia and see themselves only as ‘ministers for Covid’.”
That comment seemed particularly aimed at Matt Hancock, health secretary, and Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, both of whom have been pushing for tougher restrictions.
One person close to the cabinet discussions said: “Michael was very pro-economy in the early stages, but seemed to have a Damascene conversion over the summer.” Mr Johnson, who fell ill with coronavirus in the spring, has taken a cautious view.
The frustration inside the cabinet is wide-ranging. Health officials said “everyone” agreed on the need to protect the economy, education and the NHS. They decried “briefings to the media from parts of Whitehall that occasionally serve to undermine that approach”.
Robert West, professor of health psychology at University College London and a member of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), said the contradictions between Sage recommendations and official policy were a source of exasperation among some scientists.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said: “There is — among some people I know — a sense of frustration, a sense of ‘here we go again’.”
However the rising rates of infections and hospital admissions mean the debate inside government is far from static, and the scientists — backed by senior cabinet members — continue to push for tougher restrictions.
For the moment, Mr Johnson is resisting a circuit breaker lockdown, and instead urging local leaders in areas of northern England with high rates of infections to follow Liverpool city region’s move on Wednesday into the state of “very high” alert, which results in restrictions including pub closures, a ban on household mixing and voluntary travel bans.
Prof Whitty hopes public health officials will push councils to adopt local curbs that go beyond what he considers the inadequate “baseline” restrictions for areas placed on very high alert.
Mr Sunak is braced for a queue of regional leaders to demand additional Treasury help as they prepare to increase restrictions in response to worsening infections.
The chancellor, who on Monday announced a further £1bn of funding for councils and another £465m for Covid-19 enforcement and contact tracing, has argued he has put in place national arrangements to support businesses and workers affected by local restrictions.
But Andy Street, Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, wants help for pubs in a region now placed on “high” alert, which results in a ban on household mixing indoors.
Sadiq Khan, London’s Labour mayor, said on Tuesday he expected the UK capital to soon enter the same high alert once infection rates hit 100 cases per 100,000. The current rate in London is 87.8.
Local leaders — and Labour mayors particularly — will want to show that they have extracted more money from the Conservative government at Westminster before agreeing to new restrictions on their local economies.
The prime minister’s co-opting of “Steve” — as he referred to the Labour mayor of Liverpool city region Steve Rotheram on Monday — has stiffened resistance among leaders in northern England to their areas being put on “very high” alert because they do not want to be blamed for the restrictions that follow.
Mr Rotheram, a former bricklayer, said on Tuesday he had spent his life fighting the Conservatives but had now been accused by residents of “selling our region down the river”.
He said the government had already decided to put Liverpool in tier 3 before negotiations with him began on Friday, and that it dictated all the measures.
“We were in tier 3, no ifs not buts,” he said, adding that rising hospital admissions meant action was inevitable.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London