How Boris Johnson changed his priorities: save lives first, and then salvage the economy
There was a moment, when the decisions were made, when they wondered what on earth they had done, how far they had been forced to go. A moment when they sat “shellshocked”, reflecting on choices that will change Britain for the rest of our lives. “It took us the weekend to get ourselves into the emotional position where we were comfortable taking the decisions we took,” a minister said. “They were massive.”
In politics, there is so much overstatement. Not this time. Ten days ago the government was slowly gearing up its response to the coronavirus crisis, downplaying the need for drastic measures. By Monday, Boris Johnson had ordered an expansion of the state not seen since the Second World War to save the National Health Service, an institution formed in the cauldron of that conflict. A wartime-style lockdown of the capital was under active consideration.
This weekend, the events of the last week have already changed health policy, changed the economy and are already changing the people involved.
The last time the British state began a multiple service attack on a lurking enemy — D-Day in 1944 — it became known as The Longest Day. On Thursday one cabinet minister reflected: “It feels like the longest week. It felt like Brexit was going to change the country but it is the coronavirus that will do that now.”
Senior figures in government are insistent that the changes they made to the virus clampdown were not “a U-turn” but a vehicle accelerating faster along a track already laid. In truth, they no more resemble what went before than the space shuttle did a Citroën 2CV.
Conversations with more than a dozen ministers and cabinet ministers, special advisers, Downing Street staff and civil servants reveal a human drama, of leaders tested as never before and of the single most frightening warning a British prime minister has received in eight decades.
A shock to the system
The meeting that will change British society for a generation took place on the evening of Thursday, March 12. That was when the strategic advisory group of experts (Sage in Whitehall parlance), the government’s committee of scientists and medics, gathered to examine modelling from experts at Imperial College London and other institutions.
The results were shattering. A week earlier, councils had been warned to expect about 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. Now Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, realised the estimates were wrong.
“Unmitigated, the death number was 510,000,” a senior figure said. “Mitigated we were told it was going to be 250,000. Once you see a figure of take no further action and a quarter of a million people die, the question you ask is, ‘What action?’” Another insider said: “There was a collision between the science and reality.”
Ministers had been on notice that drastic action might be needed since the virus first emerged in China’s Wuhan province in December. In January, Whitty told the cabinet: “It either stays in China or it will get everywhere.” For two months the government had time to prepare, but Johnson’s instincts were to resist a life-changing crackdown. “There was a lot of talk about how this was just a bit of flu,” one senior Tory recalled.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”.
At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
At the Sage meeting on March 12, a moment now dubbed the “Domoscene conversion”, Cummings changed his mind. In this “penny-drop moment”, he realised he had helped set a course for catastrophe. Until this point, the rise in British infections had been below the European average. Now they were above it and on course to emulate Italy, where the picture was bleak. A minister said: “Seeing what was happening in Italy was the galvanising force across government.”
By Friday, March 13, Cummings had become the most outspoken advocate of a tough crackdown. “Dominic himself had a conversion,” a senior Tory said. “He’s gone from ‘herd immunity and let the old people die’, to ‘let’s shut down the country and the economy.’”
Cummings had a “meeting of minds” with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who wanted stronger action to prevent NHS hospitals being swamped. Department of Health officials had impressed on Hancock that the death rate in Wuhan province was 3.4% when the hospitals were overrun and 0.7% elsewhere in China.
Johnson had also been queasy about the previous original approach. “Boris hated the language of ‘herd immunity’ because it implied that it was OK for people to die,” a senior source said. “Matt hated the language because it implied we had given up. You’ve got to fight.”
The problem for the government was that at the moment herd immunity was being banished from policy, it had become the focus of publicity. That Wednesday, David Halpern of the Whitehall “nudge unit” put the phrase in the public domain. Two days later, Vallance repeated the idea on Radio 4. With Italy, France and Spain going into lockdown, the government’s critics accused Johnson of refusing to act because he wanted people to get ill.
Insiders say it was “very bumpy” that Friday. “The meetings were very messy,” said one source. But when Johnson gathered his key advisers in the cabinet room at 9.15am last Saturday there was unanimity. Whitty and Vallance explained that Britain had been four weeks behind Italy “and now we are closer”.
The two experts, together with Hancock and Cummings, all delivered to Johnson one message: “Now is the moment to act.” The prime minister agreed: “We must work around the clock and take all necessary measures.” One of those present said: “The mood in the room was astonishing. You could tell that something very significant had shifted.”
Flesh was added to the bones in another crunch meeting in Downing Street on Sunday night and again in the 9.15am meetings and bilaterals between Johnson and key cabinet ministers throughout last week.
The media was briefed that elderly and vulnerable people might have to self-isolate for a period of months and that everyone else would have to engage in “social distancing” — working from home, avoiding groups and unnecessary outings. Most significantly, without a gargantuan package of support for businesses, renters and the self-employed, millions of jobs would be lost and the economy would collapse.
The economic response
On Tuesday morning, as he prepared to unveil details of Britain’s biggest peacetime financial package, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, gathered his closest aides and officials in his book-lined study in 11 Downing Street. “The scale of what is required is beyond anyone’s current imagination,” he said. “We have to remove all limiting assumptions.”
Over the weekend, Treasury officials worked through the night to prepare a package for business as if planning a full budget. “They did three months’ work in 48 hours,” a Treasury source said. It helped that Charles Roxburgh, the second permanent secretary, and Andrew Bailey, the new governor of the Bank of England, were both veterans of the response to the 2008 financial crash.
When he walked out with Johnson for a Downing Street news conference on Tuesday afternoon, aides were still finalising Sunak’s comments as the statement came off the printer. The chancellor had no time to rehearse or to prepare for questions but gave an assured performance as he outlined plans for £350bn of government-backed loans and cash grants for business. “We will do whatever it takes,” he repeatedly intoned.
Colleagues say Sunak’s confidence came because he is deeply engaged “in the weeds” of the policy. “Some ministers set the broad parameters for 15 minutes and the officials go away and do the work,” said one source. “He’s more hands-on. He prefers a 30 to 40-minute meeting where he can properly kick the tyres and help solve the problems. He’s across the detail.”
Measures to help save jobs took longer, with a plan for the government to pay a high percentage of wages in cash-strapped firms finally being announced on Friday afternoon. Sunak agreed the package in a meeting with Johnson on Thursday night in which the pair shared a vegetarian takeaway pizza. The prime minister said: “In 2008, the government looked after the bankers. Now we must make sure we look after the people first.”
At 11.30pm the chancellor was sending messages to his permanent secretary thanking him for the “superb” work of some officials. A colleague said: “He’s got the brainpower. More importantly, he’s got the character for this moment.”
Sunak will need it because the risks are immense. One friend said: “Rishi is very acutely aware that we are in danger of driving the economy off a cliff by shutting everything up. All this talk of bouncing straight back . . . we will have no airlines to bounce straight back with if we’re not careful.”
The prime minister’s big decision on Wednesday was that schools would close on Friday, a decision arrived at with Gavin Williamson, the education secretary. They decided to act as many schools took matters into their own hands, to try to ensure childcare for key workers.
It was another decision Johnson had resisted the week before, but cabinet ministers are clear that behind the scenes he has been far more decisive at crunch moments than his predecessor. “He’s been absolutely brilliant,” said one. “He makes decisions fast.” Another said: “If Theresa May was still be in charge we would, by now, have just about signed off a request that people wash their hands.” Another cabinet source added: “And if Philip Hammond was still chancellor he would have refused even to pay for that.”
Nonetheless, even admirers admit that Johnson is not finding it easy to project the same decisiveness in his somewhat hesitant public appearances. “He’s a naturally cheerful person,” one colleague said. “He finds it difficult to deliver bad news.” Business leaders were surprised during a conference call on Monday, when he was trying to persuade them to build ventilators, to hear him describe the effort as “Operation Last Gasp”.
Whitty and Vallance began their own press conferences at the end of the week amid concern that some of Johnson’s pronouncements — including a claim that they could “turn the tide” within 12 weeks — were not grounded in evidence. “Some of the experts are appalled by some of his claims,” a Whitehall source said. A Tory aide said: “Boris looks haunted. It’s like when George W Bush came in thinking he was going to be the education-reforming president and had to deal with the war on terror.” Another senior Tory said: “Boris is shellshocked.” […]
Shaking the world
Amid the frenzy of events, more thoughtful Tories have concluded that the decisions taken last week will change three key aspects of the way the world works. One said: “One is the debate around globalisation. Is Trump right that we just need to build bigger walls, or is Gordon Brown right that global problems need global solutions? The second is Socialism v The Free Market. Large parts of the economy are going to be socialised after this. I fear it leads to nationalists and socialists winning, to national socialism.”
The third fissure may yet be the worst. “It’s the intergenerational question. It is unsustainable to have people in their youth put their whole life on hold for months while the economy tanks to save a 91-year-old who would have died six months later anyway.”
Whatever the outcome, ministers have little doubt about the significance of the virus. “It’s shaking the world,” one said. Another, who has been up to his neck in the dramas of the past three years, was more prosaic: “My obituary gets more interesting every week.”
The sadness is that there will be many other obituaries to be written too.
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March 22, 2020 at 03:49AM