UK Politics

Starmer presses advantage amid lockdown confusion

BY Joseph Rachman   /  11 May 2020

What do the government’s plans to relax lockdown actually entail? There seems to be considerable confusion and Boris Johnson has come under fire from an increasingly assertive new Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer.

Some important information was conveyed Sunday evening by the Prime Minister. Siding with the doves in his government over the hawks, Boris declared that “this is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week”. However, restrictions were being eased a little, he said. Those who could not work from home were encouraged to return to work, particularly in construction and manufacturing. Those returning to work should avoid public transport when possible though. On a recreational side, from Wednesday an unlimited amount of exercise will eb allowed.

Schools in England might reopen slowly from 1 June at the earliest, with possible further lockdown relaxations in July. This is to be determined by a new Joint Bio-Security Centre and its Covid Alert System which – running from Level One (no virus) to Level 5 (NHS overwhelmed) – will decide if and when the lockdown could be further relaxed, or retightened. As things stand the measures being introduced mean the UK was moving from Level 4 to Level 3.

Still, vital issues remained unclear today. A press release issued before Johnson’s address said that he would be telling people to return to work Monday, and despite him not naming the day work would restart himself many people seem to have taken the earlier date as official. Road traffic and public transport passenger numbers jumped on Monday morning – only for the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to state in broadcast interviews, too late, that people were not expected to go back to work until Wednesday.

The new slogan “Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Stay Alive.” has also come in for some criticism with sceptics saying that it was unclear what staying alert actually entailed. A Tweet by Boris Johnson to clarify the matter suggested little had in practise changed with the same social distancing guidelines in place.

The moment at which the government told people to take responsibility for calculating the risks they were running as lockdown relaxed was always going to be tricky.

Nonetheless, the government has not helped itself. Maximum clarity is necessary in order to build confidence and even as ministers cleared up one major confusion they caused others. Raab’s statement that people could meet both of their parents in a park was quickly contradicted by the government which clarified they should only meet one person from another household outside.

While some voices sympathetic to the government have argued the degree of confusion has been exaggerated, even as the government rushed to issue clarifications, Johnson’s opponent have been quick to pounce. Nicola Sturgeon used an article in The Daily Telegraph to restate the SNP position that it will be sticking to a stricter lockdown in Scotland than the one adopted by Boris in England.

Sturgeon appeared in the Telegraph just two days after Keir Starmer was given a front page there on VE Day. These things can be over-interpreted but the Telegraph – Boris’s paper – is rapidly becoming much more willing to criticise the Tory leader, having been such a strong supporter during the Brexit battles.

Today, in the House of Commons, after Johnson restated Sunday’s announcement, Starmer pounced posing sharp questions. When would the government release safety guidelines for specific sorts of workplaces? What rules will apply for public transport? What about childcare? Could the government provide more details on quarantine for international travellers? Wouldn’t a lack of coordination with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland make things harder?

Johnson did provide some answers saying those looking after children should not be expected to return to work and that workplace guidelines should be published tonight. Still, his claim that a “gloriously simple” message will inevitably give rise to complexity may raise some eyebrows, and his call for people to apply “good, solid British common sense” was light on specifics.

What is confusing here is that the Prime Minister should have been so light on detail. The government had after all just released a detailed 50-page briefing on the various phases of relaxing lockdown. In it was important information such as new advice to wear cloth masks when they could not socially distance, and new guidance that nannies and childminders can restart work. Given this is a government that won its large majority in no small part thanks to its relentless message discipline the ongoing communications mess is bizarre.

Now, the initiative may be with Starmer, who appears to have learnt from the Tory election playbook. With the same grim deterrmination that Conservatives chanted “Get Brexit done” Starmer used his broadcast on Radio 4 this evening to once again highlight the government’s lack of clarity, and repeat the questions he asked in the House of Commons promising to press Johnson “for as long as the crisis persists”. Johnson needs to find a way to answer them definitively.


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