The most striking features of Boris Johnson’s address to the Commons were the things he didn’t say. There was no strategic explanation for his decisions and no evidence for why the measures he was (reluctantly, he said) introducing would be more effective than any others. Nor did he make any attempt to deal with the critique that is now widely available in the public discourse of his government’s approach to this crisis.
And in spite of the sacred promise that he and his ministers had appeared to make – that all significant policy announcements would be made first to Parliament rather than being briefed to the media in advance – we had already learned of the most dramatic change from the weekend press. (Yes indeed, pubs will close at 10pm.)
The other major new edict was for office staff to work from home if they could – and Michael Gove had given that to the media earlier too. But what was missing was newsworthy: the failure to elaborate on, or explain further, the figures presented by his chief scientific advisors yesterday which have received so much criticism that they surely required some sort of apologia.
Perhaps the prime minister really believes that the accusations of irresponsible hyperbole and unjustified assumptions which the presentation by Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty has attracted from some very reputable sources, were beneath contempt. Or maybe he just chose to ignore them because the recollection was too painful. At any event, it seemed peculiarly tone deaf – as if he had become utterly out of touch with the heated debate in which the country was now engaged.
But in the end, there could be something like relief – partly because we had already had most of the bad news about pubs and restaurants. True, the Rule of Six was being extended, the numbers allowed at weddings reduced, and face masks would be required in some new places. But we had been led to believe that it might be much worse: that any mixing of households could be prohibited or that a two-week total lockdown could be called immediately. Maybe the floating of those really terrible options was just an attempt at a clever political move, designed to make us grateful for the less severe restrictions which were, in fact, announced.
If that is true, then it wasn’t clever at all. The idea that the government could even be considering (which is to say, threatening) such actions is deeply disturbing. Are they oblivious to the fact that prohibiting any social contact between households is in a completely different league from ordering pubs to shut early? We have always accepted the principle of licensing laws: that government can decree the conditions under which alcohol may be sold in a public place. Drinking or eating in a public venue is not an inalienable right.
But to visit or be in the company of others in the privacy of your own home is a different matter altogether. It is a usurping of personal freedom that is not even invoked in wartime. Local lockdowns which require such interference in private life are already being enforced by law – and it is, in truth, outrageous that this has not been more controversial.
A line has been crossed here which British constitutional traditions should regard as sacred – only to be transgressed with the fullest possible debate and the most unimpeachable evidence. Unfortunately, this government has shown precious little regard for either of those things.