Boris Johnson’s path to putting UK in coronavirus lockdown

“Bring in the police?” Boris Johnson asked with incredulity. The press conference was only on Sunday night and, just 24 hours later, the Prime Minister had ordered an unprecedented lockdown of the UK, with those caught flouting social distancing rules threatened with fines. 

With his fists clenched throughout Monday night’s momentous address to the nation,  Mr Johnson’s tone was uncharacteristically grave as he said: “No Prime Minister wants to enact measures like this.”

Having long tried to resist imposing such draconian restrictions on people’s lives, the lifelong libertarian appeared pained at having to behave so dictatorially.

So how did it come to this, and what changed so quickly in the 24 hours leading up to the lockdown? 

Mr Johnson’s 8.30pm statement came after an agonising day of discussions with members of the C-19 committee of senior ministers, followed by a full Cobra meeting at 5pm.

The PM was shown data that revealed his week-long attempt to encourage a voluntary lockdown had failed, with compliance rates well below the 75 per cent experts had said was necessary to stop the spread of the virus enough to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

Footfall in high streets was down just 30 per cent, while in parks it was up 200 per cent as walkers enjoyed one of the sunniest weekends of the year so far. Children’s playgrounds were also said to be full.

Polling by Savanta for The Telegraph showed that 56 per cent of people still left their houses on Sunday. Although that was down on Saturday (66 per cent) and Wednesday (75 per cent), it indicated that Downing Street’s newly-devised #StayHomeSaveLives slogan was not getting through. 

A source close to Monday’s talks said: “The death rate was increasing exponentially at a rate worse than Italy’s, and they were becoming increasingly alarmed. 

“When it comes down to it, these are political judgments. At the end of the day Boris is very much a libertarian Tory, he’s less interventionist by nature and he resisted a full lockdown for as long as he could. He has trusted the science throughout, and the science told him there was no other option.”

Having faced unfavourable comparisons with Neville Chamberlain, rather than his hero Winston Churchill, in Monday’s increasingly negative newspaper coverage, there was also a sense that Mr Johnson needed to be seen to be taking affirmative action amid mounting criticism of his “dithering” and delay. 

Behind the scenes, cabinet ministers were also agitating for a full lockdown both inside and outside the C-19 committee, which comprises Mr Johnson, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, and the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab.

Although talk of a mutiny was overstated, Mr Hancock and the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, were pushing Mr Johnson to go faster with the lockdown, while at the weekend Mr Gove was apparently proposing that people should need papers to leave their house, as is the case in France. 

Although one cabinet minister said: “No one has time for mutiny – we are all too busy trying to manage our departments,” another revealed that the PM’s old leadership rival Mr Gove had been rubbing some colleagues up the wrong way amid reports he had been vying to be made “chief executive” of the crisis against competition from both Mr Hancock and Mr Raab, the PM’s effective deputy.

“Michael has been tetchy in meetings with Matt and Gavin [Williamson, the Education Secretary],” they said. “He’s not got the authority, but he thinks he should.” 

Another Tory MP revealed that even though former Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, now a Cabinet Office minister, had been put in charge of communications to Conservative colleagues, Mr Gove had been “popping up in WhatsApp groups trying to chivvy everyone along.” 

On Monday night, Downing Street confirmed that Mr Raab would take the helm should Mr Johnson catch the virus. 

On the whole, Cabinet ministers have behaved “surprisingly collegiately” according to one, who said the general consensus was that the messaging on coronavirus had to be “drip-fed out”. 

“You have to lead but you also have to look after the public. You have to remember that people hadn’t even heard of coronavirus at Christmas,” the minister said. “First you had to get people familiar with it, then you had to get them to understand the threat of it, and only once we had done that could we then start telling them to do X, Y and Z.

“The PM has been excellent. He’s judged the mood and got the balance right. This was always going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.”

Yet there is a growing sense of unease within Downing Street about the Government’s reliance on expert advice on both the issue of herd immunity and behavioural psychology. 

Much has been made of Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, allegedly suggesting that the lives of “some pensioners” could be sacrificed to Covid-19 to help to protect the economy. Number 10 has described those claims as “defamatory” and “a fabrication”.

As the former Vote Leave campaign director performed his own “Domascene” conversion to a full lockdown, Mr Hancock – whose mantra throughout the crisis has been to “protect lives” – was forced to clarify the point in a piece for The Telegraph on March 14, writing: “We have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it.”

But there is no doubt there was only a u-turn on the issue after Imperial College London brought out a paper that weekend which suggested that such mitigation strategies were actually riskier to the public than tougher social distancing measures. 

According to one well-placed source: “They genuinely were thinking a week or so ago that if a lot of it caught it with mild symptoms it would be ok. Then the data came out saying it would devastate the NHS – on a scale far greater than had previously been forecast – and they u-turned. It wasn’t just the government, it was based on scientific advice.”

The source also questioned the government’s reliance on behavioural psychology, which had proved to be “too pure”.

“The scientists were saying that it was ok for football stadia to stay open because the alternative would see people flocking to pubs to watch the match, only to fail to realise that people go to the pub before or after they visit football stadia anyway. If they were worried about the pubs, why didn’t they shut them at the same time?”

Only history will judge the decisions that have been made over the course of the last hours, days, and weeks, with a public inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak now looking an inevitability further down the line. 

Yet with Britain now thought to be two weeks behind Italy, it seems Mr Johnson will only have to wait a fortnight before the public delivers its initial verdict of his handling of what he has described as “this invisible killer”. 

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