From the file

Halloween 2020 | Leaks, delays, mistakes and recrimination. This Halloween, there was nothing scarier than the British government’s handling of the second lockdown

Reanimated

Thursday 19 November 2020

The PM’s press conference to announce a second lockdown was a dreadful affair. We asked a former Number 10 speechwriter to produce a better, alternative script


It is hard to think of a series of events for which Boris Johnson is more badly miscast than the press conferences necessary to explain a pandemic, such as that held on the evening of 31 October. His characteristic blustering optimism does not work in this setting. He struggles to attain the gravity required for disconcerting news and, for that reason, lacks authority.

The only way to convey optimism in troubling times, in fact, is to communicate a sense of grave authority. If we are persuaded, listening at home, that the man on the podium has a grip on events, then we will accept that the virus will, at some point, be turned back. We supply the eventual optimism ourselves, as the conclusion of the trust we hold in the competent leader.

If we do not have such confidence in the leader, then no amount of imploring us to optimism will make us feel so. Throughout the crisis, as he did in the conference announcing a second national lockdown, Johnson has been vainly telling us what we ought to feel, rather than providing the reassurance that would permit us to feel it.

Johnson has also been prone to overdo the sorrow. No doubt he does regret the necessity of further restrictions – and a little empathy with the sacrifice is a good thing – but too sorrowful a tone sounds instead like doubt. And doubt, on such occasions, sounds uncomfortably close to indecision.

He needs to be clear, to concede that the decision has been difficult and complying with it more difficult still, but that there is no question now which is the right course. Without that authority, Johnson’s litany of potential disasters sounds very scary.

It is hard to think of a series of events for which Boris Johnson is more badly miscast than the press conferences necessary to explain a pandemic, such as that held on the evening of 31 October. His characteristic blustering optimism does not work in this setting. He struggles to attain the gravity required for disconcerting news and, for that reason, lacks authority.

The only way to convey optimism in troubling times, in fact, is to communicate a sense of grave authority. If we are persuaded, listening at home, that the man on the podium has a grip on events, then we will accept that the virus will, at some point, be turned back. We supply the eventual optimism ourselves, as the conclusion of the trust we hold in the competent leader.

If we do not have such confidence in the leader, then no amount of imploring us to optimism will make us feel so. Throughout the crisis, as he did in the conference announcing a second national lockdown, Johnson has been vainly telling us what we ought to feel, rather than providing the reassurance that would permit us to feel it.

Johnson has also been prone to overdo the sorrow. No doubt he does regret the necessity of further restrictions – and a little empathy with the sacrifice is a good thing – but too sorrowful a tone sounds instead like doubt. And doubt, on such occasions, sounds uncomfortably close to indecision.

He needs to be clear, to concede that the decision has been difficult and complying with it more difficult still, but that there is no question now which is the right course. Without that authority, Johnson’s litany of potential disasters sounds very scary.

He also has a tendency to bury the details of the rules in complex language. The list of what is and is not permitted needs to be brutally simple.

Johnson is also wrong to yield the stage almost at once to his scientific advisers. By doing so he casts himself as their warm-up man. Or perhaps he is hiding behind their scientific authority when he would be better served borrowing their authority. He should make the case himself, in the terms of an intelligent layman, and then invite the experts to illustrate his case, rather than step in to endorse what they have already said.

The point of this event is the construction of a character and the display of viable authority. He needs to lead the press conference but instead he follows.

What follows is what Johnson might have said had he decided on the leading part.

Good evening.

Tonight, I want to update you on the latest developments with the coronavirus.

I want to tell you of what we are doing to ensure that our attempts to turn back the virus are successful.

And I want to inform you of the new measures that will now, sadly, be necessary.

Through the extraordinary dedication of NHS workers and the great sacrifices of the British general public we were able to turn back the first wave of this virus.

But we always knew the virus would come again. We always knew there would be a second wave.

That second wave is now upon us and we need to be clear about the consequences if we do not act.

We would risk the prospect of several thousand deaths a day, worse even than we suffered in April.

The NHS would be overwhelmed.

We have added capacity. The Nightingale hospitals were set up rapidly and we have 13,000 more nurses than we had this time last year.

But we need to be humble in the face of nature.

The virus moves quicker than we do.

Even the South West, where the incidence of the virus has been low, would run out of hospital places in a matter of weeks.

Doctors and nurses would face the unenviable decision of which patients to treat and which should go untreated.

We cannot allow such a moral disaster to befall them and we cannot allow such a medical disaster to befall the British population.

We must act and we will.

We have been following a regional approach to lockdown, to clamp down on the virus wherever it spiked up.

We now need to go temporarily to the next level. We need to return to a national lockdown to make sure we turn back the second wave as we turned back the first.

The restrictions will not be quite as onerous as they were the first time around, but we need to take them every bit as seriously.

But before I set out the restrictions let me reassure you that the furlough system will be extended for the duration of the new lockdown.

I am well aware how difficult this is. I know the vast strain this is taking on your businesses and your livelihoods.

The support you have received so far will continue on the same basis as it has since March.

But from this Thursday until 2 December, you must stay at home.

There are five things for which you will be permitted to leave home.

One, for work, if you cannot work from home.

Two, for exercise and recreation outdoors, either with someone from your household or with one person from another household.

Three, for medical reasons.

Four, to shop for food and essentials.

And, fifth, to provide care for vulnerable people, or as a volunteer.

All essential shops will remain open, as will click and collect services, so there is no need to worry about having enough supplies.

I’m afraid that pubs, bars and restaurants must all close except for takeaway and delivery services.

Workplaces will stay open only where it is impossible to work from home, such as in the construction or manufacturing sectors.

Single adults will still be allowed to create a support bubble with one other household.

Children will still be able to move between homes if their parents are separated.

We will not ask people to shield again as we did during the first wave. But we are, of course, asking people who are clinically vulnerable to minimise their contact with others as much as they can.

Some things will remain the same. We do not want children and students to be deprived of any more of their education, so childcare, early years settings, schools, colleges and universities will all remain open.

I would like to pay tribute to teachers across the country for their dedication in enabling schools to remain open.

The NHS will be there for you too.

You should continue to get your scans, turn up for your appointments and pick up your treatments.

This is how we will turn back this virus.

I repeat: we always knew this was coming.

And, as we learn more about this virus, we have genuine reasons for cautious optimism.

By the spring of new year I expect we will have better medicine and therapies and a more extensive testing system.

We are drafting in the army to help with the distribution of quick turn-around tests.

These will be tests you can use yourself, to see if you are infected. They will help people go about their daily business in the knowledge that they are safe.

There is also, on the horizon, the realistic hope of a vaccine too.

So, with every passing day we get closer to the end of this difficult time.

But we are not there yet.

So, from Thursday the basic message is this.

Stay at home. Protect the NHS. And save lives.

I would now like to hand over to Chris and Patrick who will set out the detailed expert advice on which I have relied in coming to this decision. Chris….

[Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance make their presentations.]

It is clear, from the data you have just seen, that no responsible prime minister could fail to act.

There is one more reason.

Christmas is going to be very different this year, but I do believe that, if we take effective action now, families will be able to spend it together.

That’s why it is so important that we act now.

So please remember there are five reasons to leave home.

Work. Exercise. Medicine. Shopping. Care.

Otherwise, please stay at home.

And, together, we will get through this.

Philip Collins is a contributing editor at the New Statesman and was chief speechwriter to Tony Blair.

Next in this file

A horrific slideshow accompanied the lockdown announcement. One of Tortoise’s in-house designers has fixed it.

5 of 6