Will Boris Johnson adopt the same cautious approach on easing the coronavirus lockdown as Nicola Sturgeon?

Governments feel their way in crisis

Boris Johnson is back at work after recovering from coronavirus
Boris Johnson is back at work after recovering from coronavirus

Nicola Sturgeon’s publication of her framework for deciding the next steps on coping with coronavirus confirmed what everyone was beginning to fear: the restrictions on normal life are going to be with us for a long time.

Some aspects of the lockdown may be eased in a “phased and careful” way but life as we knew it just six weeks ago will not be returning any time soon.

The reason is clear: this virus is deadly, difficult to control and in many ways still a mystery. Hundreds of people across the UK are dying from it every day.

And while Ms Sturgeon always takes time to underline the human tragedy that lies behind the figures, the statistics themselves are frightening.

Despite UK ministers’ fondness for promising to “level’ with the public they have been notably less up front and willing to discuss what lies ahead than Ms Sturgeon with her promise of a “grown-up conversation” about the situation.

Boris Johnson, back at the helm after three weeks out of action with the virus, signalled yesterday he would not be rushing to lift the lockdown despite calls from some MPs and Tory donors for businesses to be able to get back to work.

The Prime Minister, who has had a closer encounter with the seriousness of Covid-19 than anyone would want, warned that too quick a relaxation or restrictions could mean “a new wave of death and disease” and “economic disaster”.

He thanked people for their “grit and guts” so far, claimed we were “turning the tide” and talked of bringing in opposition leaders and trying to find a consensus.

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And he did talk in the longer term of “firing up the engines of the economy one by one” which has been interpreted as indicating that he plans to ease the situation for some sectors of the economy before others.

Labour has been calling for a clearer statement of the Government’s strategy for some time. But not all will necessarily back a sectoral approach. Andy Burnham, Labour’s mayor of Greater Manchester, says such a plan could be unfair and hit certain areas hard. Similarly he is opposed relaxing the lockdown in some regions earlier than others.

Instead he urges a “standards-led approach” with permission to open linked to businesses’ ability to operate safe working standards and social distancing. The TUC has also called for every UK employer to be required to conduct a coronavirus-specific risk assessment, which would be developed with unions and workers, before people return to their workplaces.

None of this is going to be easy. It is hard to see how schools, offices and shops operate in anything but an extremely curtailed way if people have to stay two metres apart. For restaurants and pubs it is even more difficult. And even when they do open again, will customers have the confidence or incentive to return under such conditions?

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Governments are inevitably feeling their way in this crisis because it is unprecedented. But they are surely right to be cautious.

Ms Sturgeon has already warned any restrictions which are lifted might have to be reimposed at short notice if it turns out the virus starts spreading more quickly again.

The UK Government has yet to set out its approach, but the signal from Mr Johnson is that it too intends to avoid any precipitate action which could make matters worse.