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Boris Johnson’s government faces first political test of lockdown

For nearly a month, most shops and all restaurants and bars have been closed, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. That’s due to continue for another three weeks.

By: Bloomberg | Published: April 22, 2020 10:08:55 am
An amphitheater stands deserted near The Greater London Authority (GLA), City Hill, building as the sunrises behind Tower Bridge in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Boris Johnson’s coronavirus strategy faces its first major political test since the U.K. was put on lockdown a month ago when members of Parliament question ministers in a sitting conducted via video-conference.

The prime minister remains out of action recovering from his own severe case of Covid-19, and will not be in the House of Commons to answer questions when Parliament resumes its scrutiny of the government’s plans Wednesday.

In his place will be Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, facing opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer. While both Raab and Starmer will be in the chamber, in a historic first, most of the members of Parliament taking part will be doing so via Zoom videoconferencing technology.

That session, and the statement after it from Health Secretary Matt Hancock, will give ministers a sense of how much pressure they’re under from MPs to start easing the lockdown that Johnson imposed March 23. For nearly a month, most shops and all restaurants and bars have been closed, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. That’s due to continue for another three weeks.

‘The Long Run’

The “virtual Parliament” will lack the drama of normal sessions, with only 50 MPs allowed in the chamber, meaning it’s likely to be a more subdued affair. The limits of videoconferencing will also restrict the ability of members to interrupt or challenge ministers, at a time when the government has placed restrictions of people’s liberties unprecedented in peacetime.

The government faces criticism over shortages of protective medical equipment, and on Tuesday the Office for National Statistics released data showing the dramatic toll of the virus. It said that in the week ending April 10, 18,516 deaths had been registered, the highest weekly number in more than two decades and 76% more than the average for that week.

Hancock tried to get onto the front foot that evening, announcing that Britain will begin human trials of a vaccine this week.

“In the long run, the best way to defeat coronavirus is through a vaccine,” Hancock told the government’s daily news conference. “The U.K. is at the front of the global effort. We have put more money than any other country into a global search for a vaccine and, for all the efforts around the world, two of the leading vaccine developments are taking place here at home.”

britain coronavirus, uk govt criticised, uk govt measures to fight coronavirus, covid 19, bbc letter, indian express Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears on a monitor for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) meeting in London, Britain March 28, 2020. (Reuters/File)

The trials will be of a drug developed at Oxford University. Hancock said the government would give 20 million pounds ($25 million) to back the research. “In normal times, reaching this stage would take years,” he said. Another 20.5 million pounds will go to a separate project at London’s Imperial College.

Complaints from health workers about the availability of personal protective equipment continue, but Hancock was keen to emphasize the government’s achievements. He said that with the number of people hospitalized with the virus declining, the ministers had achieved their goal of protecting the National Health Service from being overwhelmed.

“At no point in this crisis has anyone who could benefit from critical care been denied that care because there weren’t enough staff, or beds, or ventilators to treat them,” Hancock said.

His announcement came as:

  • A further 852 people were announced to have died in U.K. hospitals from the virus, a sharp increase from prior days, taking the total to 17,366
  • Johnson told President Donald Trump that he was “feeling better and on the road to recovery,” according to the White House
  • The government’s scientific advisory committee met to discuss whether the public should wear face masks
  • But deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam told reporters the government didn’t want to do anything that might lead to shortages for medical staff

The health secretary said the process for finding a vaccine would take “trial and error,” but he has told U.K. scientists leading the search he would “back them to the hilt and give them every resource they need” in order to succeed. “After all, the upside of being the first country in the world to develop a successful vaccine is so huge that I am throwing everything at it,” he said.

A businessman walks along a Westminster Bridge in view of the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K., on Tuesday Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Van-Tam said the number of new cases being diagnosed in the U.K. remained high. “It isn’t clear there is an enormous downturn at this point,” he said. “The numbers are varying day to day, but they remain high and we remain in a situation of danger that we must take very seriously indeed.”

He also set out the difficulty facing governments in deciding how to ease restrictions on public activities. “We do at some point hope that we turn this curve down,” he said. The difficulty then, he said, was “easing some of the restrictions we are under without letting this virus just chase off again. That’s a really difficult balancing act.”

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