STEPHEN GLOVER: After false starts and mixed messages, Boris Johnson grasps the nettle with historic address and shows he’s the Prime Minister we need
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Boris Johnson’s sombre television address last night marked a moment in this nation’s life which all who watched it are likely to remember for as long as they live.
In what amounts to a dramatic escalation, the measures he unveiled surpass many of the restrictions introduced in the dark days of World War II. The whole country is effectively quarantined during the coronavirus pandemic, and we are for the most part confined to our homes.
We may leave to shop for basics in a diminishing number of shops allowed to stay open. We can exercise outside once a day by ourselves or with people we are living with. Only essential travel is permitted. The police will enforce these measures.
Boris Johnson plunged the nation into an unprecedented, nationwide lockdown during a televised address on Monday evening. His hope is the new measures will help to stop the coronavirus pandemic
Needless to say, a fair number of ambiguities remain. But it is clear that these extraordinary new restrictions — which I welcome with a heavy heart — are an unprecedented infringement of our personal liberties.
Only a few days ago, the Prime Minister plainly regarded such restraints with abhorrence. He did not come into politics to limit the freedoms of the British people.
To the depths of his soul, he believes that liberty and Britishness have been forged together by our history, and that if at all possible the State shouldn’t barge around in our lives.
He has lived his own life according to these lights, prizing his freedom to do whatever he pleases within the law. When his father Stanley said last week that he would visit the pub if he wanted to, the familiar Johnson family gene was on show.
Boris’s innate horror of authority revealed itself when a journalist at Sunday afternoon’s No 10 press conference suggested that the police might be more proactive. He looked momentarily shocked. In his mental picture of Merrie England, it is not the role of the police to boss us around.
This largely explains why the PM has consistently been behind the curve in recent days. He asked us not to go to pubs and restaurants. Most complied, but some ignored his plea. Such establishments were legally shut down some days later after numb-skulled people had continued to party.
The Government also dithered over closing schools, with its advisers producing various arguments as to why it was inadvisable to do so. Then, last Thursday, children were at last told to stay away.
It seemed as though every significant new measure had to be wrung from the Prime Minister, and came too late. Precious time was being squandered in the battle to curb the spread of the contagion.
Again and again, he has apologised during these press conferences for asking us to adopt new forms of behaviour. He has frequently reiterated his regret, which I’m sure is genuine, that he should be recommending measures which may seem coercive.
At times, his natural desire to safeguard our liberties has collided with the advice he has proffered, leaving many of us confused, and unsure as to what we were being asked to do.
For example, last Friday he said that he hoped to see his elderly mother on Mother’s Day, which is what any loving son would hope to do. Yet the Government advice soon made clear that such visits were undesirable.
On Sunday, the freedom-loving Boris stated ‘of course I want people to be able to go out in the parks and open spaces and enjoy themselves’ before observing that ‘even if you think you are personally invulnerable, there are plenty of people you can infect, and whose lives will be put at risk’.
So what has changed? A Prime Minister who weeks ago seemed unchallengeable has come under pressure from within the Cabinet. In particular, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove are said to have been pushing for more decisive measures.
But it must have become clear even to our freedom-loving PM that exhortation by itself would not succeed in making everyone behave responsibly and with due regard for their fellow citizens. A significant minority of people were not prepared to play ball.
On Sunday, the freedom-loving Boris stated ‘of course I want people to be able to go out in the parks and open spaces and enjoy themselves’ before observing that ‘even if you think you are personally invulnerable, there are plenty of people you can infect, and whose lives will be put at risk’
Over the weekend, there were countless cases of crowds flocking to the seaside, and to wide open spaces such as Snowdonia. Social distancing may have been sometimes observed, but the evidence of lots of photos is that it often wasn’t.
Others were not to blame for failing to observe official guidance. There have been pictures of people crammed together in tube trains in London — the nation’s coronavirus hotspot — almost inevitably spreading the disease.
So a lockdown became inevitable if we are to have any chance of avoiding the tragic fate of Italy, which, as Mr Johnson pointed out in a newspaper article over the weekend, is only two weeks ahead of where we are.
Even so, although the measures announced last night were undoubtedly very radical, they still do not match in severity those adopted by some European countries.
We are not yet quite in the position of the French and Italians, who are required to download a form which they must fill in before leaving their homes so that they can satisfy the authorities.
One can’t helping thinking that, just as previous measures have had to be tightened up following their announcement, so last night’s provisions may not be the last word so far as the terms of the lockdown are concerned.
Moreover, there are other areas in which the Government needs to show greater clarity and more concentration of purpose. Why have flights from countries ravaged by coronavirus been allowed to land in the UK? Why isn’t there more testing for the disease, which the PM has said is vital?
The key question now is how people will respond to this extraordinary lockdown. Will free-born Britons cavil at the kind of undeniably coercive restrictions which we like to think are more acceptable to countries on the Continent with a history of authoritarian government?
I believe most people will grin and bear it — just as our grandparents put up with privations such as rationing during World War II. They will know that what Boris announced last night will be strictly temporary. Some will grumble, of course, and a few will disobey.
And I’m also sure that most of us will also recognise that Boris Johnson is a lover of liberty who did not introduce these measures lightly, and will not maintain them a second longer than is necessary.
Over the past few days, as captain of our menaced ship, the Prime Minister has drawn an increasing amount of criticism — not only from those who don’t like him but also from among his own ranks.
Is he up to the task? Is he the man for the hour? Has he caught the mood of the nation? Is he too laid-back and relaxed? These are the questions that are being asked up and down the land.
There is no definitive answer to them yet. Mr Johnson is a life-enhancer who may not have been intended by the divinities who fashioned him to preside over a siege economy or introduce constraints on our freedoms.
But such are the immense challenges of the hour. Boris is the Prime Minister we’ve got. Last night, there was reason at last to believe that he may be the one we need.
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