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CORDER’S COLUMN: It is time for Churchill, not Chamberlain

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Rob Corder.

This country has been run under the sort of emergency powers reserved only for wartime over the past 15 months.

Her Majesty’s Opposition no longer opposes, but supports the government in each of its major decisions.

The mainstream press also signed up to a code of conduct relating to how the pandemic is reported, and is still motivated to toe the government’s line thanks to a massive splurge on covid-related advertising. The UK government has dominated a top 10 list of UK advertisers for 2020 after outspending all other contenders with spend of £164m last year.

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All of which has served this country reasonably well.

How well depends on your view on how many of the 128,000 covid-related deaths were avoidable and how much the economic damage of the pandemic could have been mitigated with different policies.

It is largely futile looking backwards (other than to look for precedents that inform future policy), but there is plenty to debate looking forwards as we approach what some are calling freedom day: June 21.

In some parts of the world, their own freedom days have led to street parties — in general to the chagrin of mainstream media — and significant boosts to economic activity.

This is what we should be looking forward to and planning for in this country on June 21.

Instead, as the lead story in The Times reports today, June 21 lock down lifting is set to be delayed by a fortnight, or worse.

Tellingly, the ministerial leak that forms the basis for the story says they expect a delay of “between two weeks and a month” but suggested that the political fallout was likely to be limited as long as the full reopening took place before the start of the school summer holidays late next month. 

This is the point at which I lose my s**t.

Politicians measure everything in terms of “political fallout”. They live in a different world to the rest of us; their incentives and fears are not the same as ours.

City centre stores are losing money because footfall is down. In the first week of June, footfall was still lower by 27% compared to 2019. That 27% is where the profit is. The first three quarters of a P&L is cost.

Rolex, Patek Philippe, Omega, Cartier and other top 10 brands may be doing OK, but hundreds of other watch brands are right on the margin, and that is why freedom day is so important.

At Monday’s cabinet meeting, Professor Chris Whitty and Patrick Valence gave a briefing to ministers on the latest data that was described as “fairly grim”.

They emphasised concerns about the rate of transmission of new strains of coronavirus, such as the Indian variant, and that vaccinations did not provide 100% protection.

With millions of Britons still un-vaccinated, a delay to June 21 would enable all over-50s to be fully vaccinated and leave sufficient time for jabs to take effect before restrictions are lifted, they said.

It is hard to see what is “grim” about current publicly available data. Perhaps the cabinet was shown data to which we are not privy, or more of the modelling on which so many decisions appear to have been taken, but are never revisited when they prove to be wrong by factors of two, five or ten.

What we do know, because Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons, is that there have been 12,383 recorded cases of the Indian variant, of which 126 have led to hospital admission (1% of those infected).

Of those hospitalised, 83 had not been vaccinated, 28 had received one dose and three had received both doses (0.024% of those infected with the Indian variant).

So, with newspapers reporting that the Indian variant is running rampant, only three people who had been double-dosed, were even hospitalised. There were 59 deaths of people within 28 days of a positive covid test up to yesterday, roughly the same as every week since the start of April.

Deaths have been below the 5-year average since March.

Looking at the vaccination rates by age, 86% of over-50s have been fully vaccinated. This rises to 95% of over-70s.

If there is much danger to the 14% of over-50s that have not been fully vaccinated, it certainly isn’t showing through in hospitalisations or deaths, and there is absolutely no reason to think they will.

Cases will continue to rise, and would not be surprised to see daily totals of up to 20,000 in the coming weeks, but the links to hospitalisations and deaths, the government says, has been severed.

The delay to June 21 is therefore pointless.

Which brings me to the headline of this column. Are we being led by a prime minister who is more Churchill or Chamberlain?

Is Boris Johnson prepared to put any lives at risk for the sake of freedom that — lest anybody needs reminding — are ours by birth thanks in part to the sacrifices of our grandparents in the war.

We have needed different types of leadership during different phases of this pandemic. Emergency powers did need to be used to suppress the first wave while we knew so little about covid-19.

They were needed again as the Indian variant caused a second spike before we knew whether vaccines would work against it and to buy time to get millions of shots into arms.

Now, if Mr Johnson is as Churchillian as he would like us to think, we need his leadership to get the country out from under the bed and back to work, back to shops, back to cinemas, back to restaurants and pubs.

If he continues to pursue a zero risk strategy (I call it the immortality plan), this final phase of the most traumatic period in living memory should see him labeled as a chinless Chamberlain incapable of leading the country to freedom.

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