For months, government messaging equated going outside with putting other people’s lives at risk: there was none of the nuance other European leaders were using at the time. “We made staying at home virtuous, like a national duty,” complains one minister. “We haven’t really changed that message.” The biggest surprise of lockdown was how seriously people took his advice: they stayed home far more than the official modelling suggested. They still do.
You’d struggle to find any European country with fewer people back at work than Britain. We’re strikingly unwilling to return to shops, or use public transport. Brits are far more likely than French or Germans to worry about the safety of hot-desking at work. But the fear is understandable, given the official guidance. The UK Covid alert is still at Level Three – meaning it is not, yet, safe to say declare the number of cases as “low”. Given that hospital data shows the virus has fallen 96 per cent from its peak, it’s not clear when the test for “low” will be met.
An obvious point is coming, which many ministers would like to be Get Back To Work day. After this Bank Holiday weekend, schools will be back and parents liberated – so Tuesday will be a big moment. With some 91 per cent of Scottish children back in the classroom last week, England can hope for similar levels.
It’s an obvious juncture for the Prime Minister to start a campaign saying how important it is – for the sake of communities, cities and society – that people go back to work if they can. Yes, there is a risk. But with unemployment about to double, there is a bigger risk in delay.
For most of this month the Prime Minister has been fretting about moving too early and ending up with a resurgence, like Donald Trump. But even American cases are now declining. Britain’s experience with the virus has been very similar to that of Sweden, with both countries now at the end of an epidemic curve. Hospital data, increasingly seen as more reliable than testing data, suggests no serious resurgence.
So there is plenty of room for cautious optimism – and for leadership, which has been rather lacking in the past few weeks. Optimism has always been the Prime Minister’s stock-in-trade: it would be odd for him to abandon it, at a time when it’s needed most.
As his columns in this newspaper made clear every week for years, his bias is towards liberty. He could easily combine this, now, with a public health argument – pointing out that restrictions, if left too long, will cause more harm than good. And every week that cities lie almost deserted, livelihoods are lost and businesses permanently closed.
Those who have seen Mr Johnson recently say his health is now as strong as ever: he’s energetic and keen to get back in the public eye. After making the case for going back to school, it’s the natural next step for him to urge people to go back to work next week: for the sake of their company, the economy, their colleagues and themselves. The lesson of Eat Out to Help Out is that it was not (just) about money: people are keen to do what they can to start rebuilding and are waiting for the signal.
Now would be the perfect time for the Prime Minister to give it.