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“England expects everyone to do their duty”. Admiral Nelson’s famous flagship signal, issued on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar, was scrawled for years by wide-eyed schoolchildren in history books teaching the classic story of heroism and sacrifice.
Boris Johnson was clearly such a student, as it appears that Nelson’s message is now his main public health policy in dealing with a 21st century pandemic. The Prime Minister said in his latest Downing Street briefing that “we expect and recommend” that the public wear face masks in crowded and enclosed spaces used by strangers.
The term “expectation management” is loved by politicians trying to massage the response to an expected election, but this is completely new territory. Johnson clearly believes that somehow he can massage the public’s Covid conscience by simply telling them that he expects them to do the right thing.
To prove that this was not just the Prime Minister’s wording, Health Minister Sajid Javid also used the phrase “expected and recommended” in his update for the House of Commons. Javid even had a variation on this theme of feeling personal duty rather than public requirement, saying it would “encourage” companies to use Covid “passports” to limit the spread of the virus.
Expecting, encouraging and recommending are, of course, not the same as urgently or urgently advising. For this reason, several medical professionals and scientists are concerned that on the way to “Freedom Day” on July 19, the government simply sent too mixed messages on topics such as wearing masks and working from home.
Still, Monday showed that Johnson and his ministers are slowly realizing the mistake of the harsh emphasis on “personal responsibility” over the past week. Just a few days ago, the ministers were talking about wanting to throw away masks because they were only a little irritated by wearing them or because (new) face coverings made communication with the hearing impaired more difficult.
The Prime Minister has not been deaf to such criticism and there has definitely been a change in tone and language in just a week. While the government will not refer to its latest news as “advice”, it wants to make it clear what it believes is the better way to behave while it is no longer a question of legality or illegality.
The change of tone was also notable in the implied threat Johnson made about what would happen if the public proved they could not be trusted to listen to his pleas: the return of some sort of lockdown.
After saying in February that his roadmap was “cautious but irreversible,” the prime minister tried a bit of revisionist history himself. “I hope the roadmap is irreversible – we’ve always said that we hope it will be irreversible – but in order to have an irreversible roadmap we also said it had to be a cautious approach,” he told the Briefing. It was Johnson-style audacity of hope.
In fact, this is not a deliberate triumph of hope over expectation, it is both hope and expectation crammed together as a pandemic policy. The only problem is that while lockdown can be used to predict the Covid curve, relying on consistent public behavior when unlocking it is a very uncertain science. With some of Sage’s more frightening modeling, we could end up with “at least” 1,000 hospital admissions per day and up to 200 deaths per day.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty gave valuable support to the Prime Minister for the idea of easing restrictions next week. There is no clear evidence that further delay would make a difference, he said before adding the crucial caveat: “What will make a difference goes slowly”.
But when Whitty said the public should “avoid unnecessary meetings,” the question arose of how to separate the necessary from the unnecessary.
In a way, Sir Patrick Vallance’s most revealing comment was when he virtually confirmed Whitehall’s whisper that some form of “hybrid immunity” (of vaccinated and infected) was now unofficial. Don’t call it “herd immunity”.
Vallance said, “We are well on our way to achieving significant levels of immunity that will really hamper the ability of this virus to spread and cause damage. And that will bring with it the possibility that future big waves will go at that point. ”Perhaps this is the happiest thing anyone has said at these briefings in a long time.
The government’s argument that July 19 is a valid pivotal point, given the school holidays and impending winter, certainly has some force. It can be used to slowly restore businesses and jobs, as well as hospital waiting lists that have all suffered from the lockdown. But teaching the rhetoric of some newspapers on Freedom Day while pushing for continued caution is a difficult game.
The Prime Minister’s new cautionary sound bits could be heard by a large part of the public. But since the Commons themselves are sending the most harmful message of all (one rule for them, one for the rest) by allowing MPs to take off masks while forcing staff to wear them, the dangers are obvious. Store and subway workers don’t force masks to be worn the way they are. Imagine the arguments once the deniers get a legal license next week.
When he came out of the hospital last year after his own Covid attack in April last year, the Prime Minister stated, “If this virus were a physical attacker, an unexpected and invisible mugger, what I can tell you from my own experience, this is it the “moment in which we started together to wrestle it to the ground.”
The trouble is that his own mixed messages have turned his public health policy into a half-Nelson, the wrestling move that can be overturned by a determined opponent. When Horatio looks down Whitehall towards Downing Street with one eye, MPs and ministers feel uncomfortable about the unlockdown game.
And the true half-Nelson may feel like the prime minister is withdrawing from him while the public is doing its duty. Let’s hope (there is that word again) that his message of encouraged caution works.