Faced with the coronavirus, Boris Johnson must stop playing the invisible man | Andrew Rawnsley | Opinion

The coronavirus crisis has sparked a worldwide race against time to try to understand its nature, contain its spread and develop a vaccine. Only in a few remote corners of the planet do people appear to be nonchalantly confident that it can’t get to them. One of those cut-off places is Downing Street. On Friday, Number 10 announced that the prime minister would finally chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee, but not until Monday. Nothing must get in the way of Boris Johnson’s weekend. This is of a piece with his behaviour as the spread of the virus has escalated. He has elected to self-isolate indoors rather than take visible charge of the government’s planning and public messaging.

Those rebuking his vanishing act include the prime minister’s old frenemy George Osborne, who complained: “The British government now needs to go on to a ‘war footing’ with the coronavirus: daily NHS press briefings, regular Cobra meetings chaired by the PM, ministers on all major media shows. The public is fearful, wants information and needs to know their leaders have got a grip.” You know you are in trouble when the former chancellor is giving advice on crisis management.

I think he’s wrong to suggest that most of the public are “fearful”, but he’s right to say that they want reassurance that their government has “got a grip”. In times like these, people have two main demands of their rulers. They crave reliable information that they can act on with confidence. And they want evidence that the government has a plan, or is at least diligently and urgently working on a plan, to deal with the crisis. What they don’t expect is for the occupant of Number 10 to turn himself into the invisible man.

The criticism that he has gone absent without leave appears to have stung Mr Johnson at least a little bit. Because he then did pop up to make a brief appearance before TV cameras on Friday evening, after the first fatality of a British citizen had been announced, to declare that responding to Covid-19 was now the government’s “top priority”. Its plan for containment and mitigation will be published early this week.

This crisis is testing the resilience of peoples, the competence of their governments and the mettle of leaders around the world. The best find the right balance between giving the public trustworthy guidance and not stoking panic. The challenges to leadership are the greater because the coronavirus presents an unusual cocktail of threats. It is a health hazard accompanied by a menace to the world economy. Financial markets were initially complacent that the contagion would be mostly contained to China, and world growth would quickly rebound in a V-shaped recovery from any setback. Markets are now shaking with fright that the virus will trigger a chain reaction with severe consequences for global growth. Belatedly pricing in the potential hit to trade and company earnings, American and European stock markets have just lurched through their steepest falls since the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the great crash of 2008. There is a rising chance that the disruption to international supply chains and the suppression of economic activity will tip us into a global recession. Central banks can try to stimulate demand, but they can’t do much to soften a supply shock. This is a threat to this country even if the UK itself manages to avoid an epidemic. For an open economy that is especially dependent on trade flows and finance, there is no vaccine to protect us from economic influenza. If the world catches that cold, Britain will be sneezing with it.

Few members of this government know much about viruses. Nearly all do understand the link between the economic climate and how the public feel about their leaders. I detect rising anxiety within ministerial ranks about a global contraction and the havoc that would wreak on their plans and their popularity. Talking to one cabinet minister recently about what might derail this government, he confided: “A recession. That’s what I fear most.” A downturn will make it much harder for the government to deliver on its end-to-austerity spending promises and its pledges not to raise any of the main forms of personal taxation. Damage would be inflicted on living standards, not least among those voters in what we used to call the Labour heartlands who turned to the Tories for the first time at the election.

The menace of a virus-induced recession infecting the British economy has large implications for the budget that is due in just 10 days. This had been planned as a boldly defining event in the early life of the Johnson government. Now it will be a budget built on very wobbly foundations. Ministers simply don’t know – and will admit as much in private – what sort of hit there will be on the British economy. Estimates range from the light to the seriously nasty. The neophyte chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and his officials face what one calls “the nightmare” of presenting a budget when all the underpinning assumptions about growth, borrowing, spending and tax revenues have been rendered even more flaky than usual.

The spread of the coronavirus also has significant implications for Mr Johnson’s attempt to secure a decent trade deal with the EU. Since London and Brussels published their negotiating strategies, there has been a lot of sabre-rattling from both sides. That was to be expected, but the crisis places a much darker complexion on this Brexit brinkmanship. The spectre of a virus-induced global recession greatly elevates the hazards if the talks fail and will make the price of a no-deal outcome that much more punishing for the British economy.

This points us to another thing required of political leadership: a capacity to make tough choices, some of which will be very hard indeed should the UK face a coronavirus epidemic. The constant ministerial mantra is that they are relying on clinical advice to formulate a response that is designed to be both effective and proportionate. Expect to hear a lot more of that when the government publishes its plan. But some decisions are ultimately for the politicians to make and the most testing of them will land on the prime minister’s desk.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, has delicately hinted at the difficulty of the choices in the worst scenarios. The prime minister and his cabinet will have to make some large decisions about the extent to which normal life is curtailed. Following Japan’s example and closing all schools will take many adults out of the workforce to look after their children. Emulating the Chinese model of shutting down factories, offices, shops, restaurants and transport networks in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus will mean hurting many businesses and the livelihoods of those who work for them. Some firms will go bust. The Swiss have prohibited all gatherings of more than 1,000 people, cancelling the Geneva motor show. The Saudis are banning foreign travellers from visiting the two holiest sites in Islam. Italy has placed several towns in the north under police-controlled quarantine. Other measures can include closing all museums, theatres and cinemas, and cancelling music festivals and sporting fixtures. All of which have knock-on economic effects.

As Professor Whitty observes, the prohibition of so many human activities that we normally take for granted would have “non-trivial implications”. The experience of previous viral outbreaks suggests that the biggest impact on economies and incomes will come not from the disease itself but from the responses. There are trade-offs between doing everything a government can to stop the spread of contagion, and the disruption that containment strategies will inflict on economic and social life. The chief medical officer is right to suggest that “we are going to have to have, as a society, a serious discussion about how we manage the trade-offs”.

I am going to put the choice more bluntly than he does – or any politician is ever likely to be brave enough to spell out. Should we take every measure available to try to counter the virus and at whatever economic and social cost? Or are we better advised to take less stringent steps to minimise the impact on society, at the price of increasing the risk of infection and, for those most vulnerable to the virus, elevating the risk of death?

This is the critical dilemma that is lurking behind many of the calculations and pronouncements by politicians and their advisers. The debate needs to be had honestly and openly. It is a conversation that will need to be led. To govern is to choose. One choice no leader can make at a time of crisis is to hide.

Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

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