Boris Johnson’s coronavirus press conference in Downing Street on Monday night had the same setting, the same format and the same cast list as many that have gone before.
But it was strikingly different in one respect; the prime minister made no attempt to sweeten the pill he was administering or to lift his audience’s eyes to a sunlit upland just beyond their reach.
“People in Britain actually do not tend to get scared. What they want is people to give them very straight news and know the worst, and then discuss what we should do, and get on and work out a plan for how to do it,” chief medical officer Chris Whitty said.
When Steve Baker, a leader of the anti-lockdown Conservative MPs, asked when he expected to have vaccinated the vulnerable population, the prime minister gave an uncharacteristically gloomy prognosis.
“Alas, I cannot give him a date by which I can promise confidently that we will have a vaccine. There are some very hopeful signs, not least from the Oxford-AstraZeneca trials that are being conducted, but, as he knows, Sars took place 18 years ago and we still do not have a vaccine for Sars. I do not wish to depress him, but we must be realistic about this. There is a good chance of a vaccine, but it cannot be taken for granted,” he said.
Johnson promised to work with local political leaders in lockdown areas and to give them the funds to enforce the rules and to develop local contact tracing infrastructure. Public health experts have been calling for months for Britain’s lamentable, centralised test, trace and isolate system to be replaced by a decentralised model using local public health teams.
Downing Street has been negotiating in recent days with regional mayors about support for businesses and workers in locked-down areas. The results have been mixed and most local politicians remain unhappy but the talks themselves were an acknowledgment by the government that the long battle against coronavirus cannot be sustained without the support of regional actors.
The pandemic has already revealed the limits of Westminster’s reach in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as the British government has been able to legislate only for England. Now this most centralised administration, so jealous of its power, has glimpsed the edge of its authority even within England itself.