UK Politics

Johnson ‘feeling the weight of responsibility acutely’ over COVID-19


It was but three weeks ago that Boris Johnson gathered his cabinet together to set the government's agenda for the autumn after the summer break.

He was characteristically upbeat.

While there would be "some turbulence ahead" with more of the "wretched COVID" to come, the nation was "getting back on its feet" and the prime minister was "absolutely confident we are going to be able to deal with outbreaks".

Image: The PM is due to address the public on Tuesday

September is not even over, and this week the prime minister has a very different message to convey to the public.

The "inevitable" second wave of coronavirus is on its way and he finds himself again in the eye of the storm, with extremely difficult judgement calls to take on how to deal with the outbreaks as he weighs up the public health concerns against not just the economic devastation, but the public and political backlash from a weary country and restive MPs.


On Monday, his scientific advisers Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance will give a television briefingon the latest coronavirus data, and on Tuesday the prime minister is expected to speak to us all directly himself.

Bringing out his scientific advisers to address the public is designed to be a wake-up call, to remind us that the threat is very much still with us.

More from Boris Johnson

Cases are rising rapidly and we are – to quote Professor Whitty – at a "critical point in the pandemic".

Infections were at a four-month high this weekend, with 4,422 cases recorded on Saturday, and are doubling every seven to 10 days, according to the PM's scientific advisers.

The UK's trajectory is now six weeks behind France and Spain and heading to substantial numbers of cases by mid-October if left unchecked.

Boris Johnson
Image: The PM has said a second wave is 'inevitable'

"Over the summer, people relaxed and cases were lower. People have forgotten how dangerous this is," said one government figure.

"Chris and Patrick are going to speak directly to the public about where we are and the rise of cases in other countries. It has not gone away and it's come back quickly."

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Hard truths delivered by the experts to help prepare the ground for another round of restrictions expected to be announced by the prime minister this week.

The question is, how far does he go?

Whether a hawk or dove, ministers agree that a full national lockdown must be avoided at all costs, so now it is a question of how far the government decides to go short of shutting the country down completely.

"They are looking at all the shades of grey and that is a data exercise," continued the government figure.

Mr Johnson's scientific advisers have proposed a short "circuit break" of national restrictions for a short period of time to try to squash the disease, but this has not yet been signed off, according to Number 10 insiders.

Boris Johnson visits a laboratory in Oxford
Image: Boris Johnson recently visited a laboratory in Oxford

Other options could see curfews introduced, or new rules to try to drive down social interactions further and restrict household mingling.

"It's all in the mix," said one senior government figure.

"We could do a curfew, we may go to circuit break."

How much do you know about the COVID restrictions?
How much do you know about COVID-19 restrictions?

Ministers and advisers are keenly watching the data to see if the recent changes of the six person rule, introduced last Monday, and tougher enforcement rules might change behaviour and reduce social contact.

But that involves waiting to see if the early data shows change or improvement, and the PM might well decide he wants to get out ahead of the disease and move more quickly.

He is, say a couple of colleagues who know him well, feeling the weight of responsibility acutely as he is pulled between his scientific team and economic one.

On one side there is Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, Patrick Vallace, the chief scientific adviser, and his health secretary Matt Hancock – all pressing for a "safety first" approach, the fall-out of the late lockdown in March perhaps still fresh in their minds.

On the other is his chancellor Rishi Sunak, his business secretary Alok Sharma and a good many senior backbenchers warning of the economic – and longer-term health – devastation of more draconian measures.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak
Image: Chancellor Rishi Sunak is warning of the economic devastation of more draconian measures

"The PM is in a very difficult situation because it all rests on him," one of his senior ministers told me last week.

"The instinct of the PM is he has to keep this virus under control, because if there is a spike, it falls on his shoulders, I do feel for him."

There is also the question of the public and political backlash.

The government's Scientific and Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) reported last week that just one in five people reporting symptoms in England fully self-isolated at home for the required two weeks at the end of August.

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