The gloves are off.
Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition and leader of the Labour Party, has come across as measured, competent and dull over the course of the pandemic, according to opinion polls.
For those who despair at the Johnson government’s handling of the crisis, this might not be such a bad thing. Better a boring safe pair of hands than an exciting game of keepy-uppy with a glass ball full of nitroglycerin. But Starmer has played his cards close to his chest, scrutinising government policy without giving any suggestions of his own.
Today, that changed – Starmer gave a press conference distancing himself from the government’s new “three-tier” system and instead called for a two-week national lockdown as a “circuit breaker.”
So, one on side we have what sounds temptingly like a wedding cake and on the other we have what sounds like something you put in your car after the windscreen wipers get stuck on full blast.
What is happening? What does it all mean? Why is it important?
Let’s try to break it down.
NB: I would like to serve immediate (and legally-binding, hopefully) notice that I am not an expert on coronavirus. I’m not even an expert in the Inglesh language. This article is meant to be informative, but will not give the whole story. For full details on regulations, what you should do if you test positive, and other information, I urge you to visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/ or https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus.
TIERS FOR FEARS
Yesterday, the government announced its three-tier system of restrictions in England to try and hamper the spread of the coronavirus. These are:
Medium alert: It’s quiet…
High alert: Too quiet…
Very high alert: OH GOD IT’S HERE OPEN FIRE *comms go dark*
As per every monster film from the 90s. They are, in reality, relatively simple.
Tier One, or medium-risk, is where most of us are now. This means current restrictions of 10pm curfew, rule of six, hands-face-space-race-brace, etc. etc. Tier Two means no indoor social meetings outside of your support bubble at all (in pubs, homes or anywhere else), and Tier Three means even stricter rules on where you can meet, if at all (specific measures are decided by local authorities).
Sounds rough, doesn’t it? Well, not rough enough, according to Jean Claude Van Tam, a leading member of the SAGE committee and epidemiologist. He explicitly said that the measures introduced by Johnson, himself looking depleted and sombre yesterday, would have little effect in stopping the coronavirus’ spread. Indeed, track and trace was only making a marginal difference, too, according to research papers released by SAGE.
So why is the government only dipping its toes into the murky lockdown waters? Fundamentally, the answer is: the economy. Another full lockdown could be catastrophic for small businesses and many others in the UK who are barely clinging on to solvency, or could be extremely expensive for a government that has spent unimagineable sums of money this year to prop up our ravaged economy.
…Despite just three years ago, the former leader famously saying, “There is no magic money tree.” That aged well, Theresa.
Look, it’s an almost impossible position for any government, let alone a Tory one. Do we cripple the economy, potentially putting tens of thousands of people out of work and decreasing their quality of life, potentially leading to long-term detrimental health effects? Or do we let the virus tear through our society, potentially causing our NHS to be overwhelmed and unable to focus on other, life-saving treatments for cancer and other illnesses?
Well, the government is trying to balance itself on this gossamer tightrope like a drunk panda.
But Starmer took a deep breath, picked a side, and plunged off the rope.
Starmer held a press conference comprising solely of himself, Vicky Young (BBC), Robert Peston (ITV) and Kate McCann (Sky News), making it look like a particularly depressing am-dram production in a friend’s garage. But the soliloquy was more than just a ramble on midlife crises.
Starmer called out Boris Johnson for tacking away from the recommendations of his health advisors and recalled the government’s failure to manage the second wave of coronavirus. Not only that, he gave a clear and unequivocal policy at odds with the government’s, his first since taking charge of the Labour Party: a two or three-week national lockdown.
Starmer, and the wider Labour Party, have now positioned themselves as the party that “follows the science,” the buzzwords that flew out of Johnson and Matt Hancock’s mouths at every turn during the first national lockdown.
Incidentally, I realised the other day that ‘Matt Hancock’ can easily be turned into Cock-Hatt Man. It goes without saying that he shall be referred to as such henceforth.
So, while the government restrictions take shape, Starmer is now, officially, calling for more stringent measures. Starmer even addressed Johnson directly, saying that should he be worried about Tory rebellions blocking stricter measures, the Labour Party will give him the votes instead.
That one must have particularly stung. I imagine some muffled Latin expletives were heard by the Bobby outside the door to No. 10.
STARM-ALARM-ER DING DONG TIME
So what does this all mean? Why is it important?
Well, first and foremost, it’s probably going to play out as a very shrewd move by the Labour leader. Unfortunately, and desperately sadly, the statistics are headed invariably towards a large second spike. How large, we don’t know, but still – times are going to get tough again.
Which means that it is almost an inevitability that we will need a full national lockdown again sooner or later. And, when we come to it, many scientific voices will say that it should have come sooner, as they already are:
And Starmer will be the one who called it, way back on October the 13th. And, compared to the chaos in the heart of the Tory party, he will start to look like the UK’s salvation.
Johnson’s nightmare is only just beginning. This evening, he’s seen 42 Tory MPs vote against the controversial 10pm curfew, many of whom are new MPs from the former “Red Wall” seats in the North and Midlands. This is a shot across the bow – 42 rebels tonight could give confidence to others moving forward.
And, in the last few minutes, he has seen a member of the government resign over the effect of local lockdowns in Bolton:
Starmer has drawn a line in the sand, decisively moving away from the “scrutinise but support” strategy he previously followed. He now has a united party, on the key issue of the day, facing down a government that is horrifically divided.
Whatever happens politically, we can only hope that whatever decisions are made next are made quickly and correctly.
It won’t just be Johnson’s political life on the line if they aren’t. It’ll be the real lives of thousands of people, too.