Johnson appealed to those who are able to work from home to do so until the virus is under control – just weeks after the government launched a high-profile campaign encouraging people to return to their offices and workplaces.
And he announced that face masks will be made mandatory for staff in the hospitality and retail sectors, as well as for taxi passengers. Masks are already compulsory on public transport and for customers in stores. Additionally, the mask mandate will become law, not just guidelines.
Citizens and businesses that break the rules will have to pay fines; the government must provide additional funding to the police to help them enforce the restrictions. The police will even have the option of asking for military support, if they are overwhelmed. This doesn’t mean troops are patrolling the streets: Downing Street has said the military could be used to perform office functions and to guard sites protected, freeing police to enforce the virus response.
Johnson said the measures will remain in place for at least six months, meaning large gatherings over Christmas will be impossible for many families.
The announcement comes at a critical time for the UK, a country whose first wave of Covid-19 resulted in the most deaths of any European country and the worst recession of any major economy.
Johnson’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser on Monday told the country the number of infections was doubling every seven days and warned that without further intervention the UK could see infections jump from the 4,368 on Monday to 50,000 in mid-October. . This, in turn, could lead to 200 deaths per day by mid-November.
But what exactly should be done to tackle the huge coronavirus problem in the UK is the subject of fierce political debate.
Johnson’s new measures will displease members of his own ruling Tory party on both sides of the debate, including those in his own cabinet.
The pandemic has revealed a split between those who think the government should prioritize the UK’s economic recovery, after the 20.4% GDP decline in the second quarter of 2020, and those who think avoiding a second wave of Covid-19 must be the priority. .
Senior right-wing party officials fear the long-term impact of economic damage and job losses will cost more than the virus itself; those on the other side of the debate argue that the economic blow of a second short, short “breaker” lockout is worth it to save lives.
The relatively modest measures unveiled by Johnson on Tuesday appear to be an attempt to appease both sides; the prime minister told parliament he “would not listen to those who say the virus is tearing”, or those who want a state of “permanent lockdown”.
Critics have previously noted that Johnson’s government has only recently urged the country to return to office, in order to save high street businesses like sandwich shops and pubs that have suffered from the lack of daily commerce from commuters.
The government also introduced a popular “Eat Out to Help Out” program, which saw diners offer discounts of up to 50% per person to eat at restaurants whose doors had previously been forced to close by the pandemic.
Johnson has faced the most difficult few months of his difficult post as Prime Minister.
Not so long ago, public health experts were talking about the real prospect of a second wave meaning the government would have to choose between pubs and schools.
At the time, government officials said this framing was crude and the pandemic could not be viewed as a zero-sum game. They thought it was possible to have their cake and eat it.
But with cases on the rise and the country bracing for what could be a brutal winter, Johnson may soon have to make choices that will be presented as economics versus public health, or personal freedoms versus national lockdown.
And that’s not a position a small-state Liberal Conservative Prime Minister would ever dream of.