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The public needs more than Project Fear

Boris Johnson must convince us that he has a strategy for tackling Covid-19 without destroying the economy

Boris Johnson is expected to send Britain back into some new-fangled version of the old lockdown
Boris Johnson is expected to send Britain back into some new-fangled version of the old lockdown Credit: Getty

There was a time when the sight of two eminent figures in their fields, one a scientist, the other a medic, standing beside our Prime Minister in a wood-panelled room to deliver the daily facts and figures on coronavirus was strangely cathartic.

That time, way back in March, now seems like a lifetime ago and, for far too many families, it is also a lost life or a lost livelihood away. Now, the appearance of Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance at a Downing Street briefing feels like watching the harbingers of doom return.

The Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Science Adviser were wheeled out of the shadows on Monday morning with one job to do: bring a sceptical public back onside, preparing the ground for Tuesday, when the Prime Minister is expected to send us back into some new-fangled version of the old lockdown. If you thought we'd seen the back of Project Fear once we left the EU in January, think again. This was Project Fear with bells on.

Whitty and Vallance, once two of the most trusted men in the country, delivered a stern briefing to the nation about just how bad things really are and how much worse they could soon get, with the scary "example scenario" of 50,000 new cases a day and 200 deaths a day by mid-October.

The fact that this "scenario" - which Vallance twice stressed was not a "prediction" - looks absolutely nothing like the much less worrying Spanish and French trajectories we're supposed to be following was quietly skipped over. Never mind, the headlines were written and the scaremongering job was duly done.

It's easy to criticise the Government's chaotic communications but hiring the best PR agency in the business could not solve this problem. That's because the real crisis is not in the presentation of their strategy, it's the total absence of any strategy at all.

The Government's plan to tackle coronavirus appears to be little more than "we must be seen to do something". Even if that "something" is not merely useless but is even worse than doing nothing.

So why is the Government so determined to scare us back into our homes when only a few weeks ago they were urging us to go back to work and to school, and to eat out to help out? Have things really taken such a turn for the worse? Has the virus spiralled out of control in a way no one could possibly have predicted?

Yes, coronavirus infections are rising, and with them, although at a far lower rate, are hospitalisations and deaths, but none of this will have been a surprise to Whitty, Vallance or Boris Johnson given the end of lockdown and the knowledge that every seasonal respiratory disease does exactly this every autumn.

Yet, despite the rising numbers, all the evidence points not to a second wave of the pandemic but to a second wave of panic by No 10.

At first all their faith was put into lockdown, quickly followed by testing, and then hopes of a swift vaccine. Yet here we are, six months on, with the virus still here, about to go full circle and head back into lockdown again.

The trouble is, locking down is at best a delaying tactic and at worst a mortal wound to our faltering economy. And, crucially, the justification for it can only work once. Like many millions of Britons, I supported the Government's first lockdown as a temporary measure to deal with a deadly threat we knew little about, while we got NHS capacity up to speed. Six months on, we know far more about the virus; how it spreads, how deadly it is and who it kills, while NHS beds are lying ready and waiting, so what is the rationale this time?

Despite their best efforts, there was nothing in what Whitty and Vallance had to say, or in any of their doom-laden graphics, to justify a second assault on our liberties.

Now Messrs Doom and Gloom have had their say, scaring the living daylights out of us all once again, it is up to Johnson to convince us that he does indeed have a strategy that is not just about saving lives from Covid, but one that does not cost more lives along the way in untreated cancer or heart disease, or cost millions of jobs and years of economic growth.

The Prime Minister needs to prove to us that he is a man with a plan.

Julia Hartley-Brewer hosts the talkRADIO breakfast show every weekday 6.30am-10am