The Guardian view on Covid confusion: government inconsistency will be deadly

'My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,” Boris Johnson declared many years ago. The joke has served his career so well that he has often returned to the theme, making promises without fretting about his ability to keep them. Countries cannot dodge consequences so easily. In a pandemic, complacency, mixed messages and erratic policy are more than wasteful and enraging. They are lethal.

The prime minister hoped, as everyone once did, that vaccines might allow a full return to normal life. For now at least, they are only part of a solution. On “freedom day”, the UK recorded almost 40,000 gevalle: a 41% rise in a week. More than one million schoolchildren in England were absent for Covid-related reasons last week. The health service is already feeling the strain. Businesses are closing, services suffering and families cancelling longed-for holidays due to self-isolation requirements. The pings from the app are not the problem, but the symptom: cases are soaring.

Mr Johnson wanted the boost from lifting restrictions among voters and especially Tory backbenchers, without fully acknowledging its cost: unnecessary deaths and long-term health damage, from Covid or its knock-on effects upon the health service. Behind the joviality lies ruthless indifference. According to WhatsApp messages released by former aide Dominic Cummings, the prime minister denied the NHS would be overwhelmed by a second wave last autumn, and said he was not prepared to lock down the country to save people in their 80s. He appears to have written “get Covid and live longer”. As Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, observed, no leader should be glib or complacent about human life.

While vaccines are saving many lives this time, the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, acknowledged that hospitalisations could greatly exceed 1,000 a day; en 96 deaths were reported on Tuesday, the highest number since March. This government is maximising the risks. The rules are the message; to axe them all while talking of caution is inherently confusing. Many understandably regard permission to return to activities as reassurance that those things are now safe. You cannot expect people to obey instructions when they don’t know what they are, or when – as at the weekend – you suggest that the prime minister and other members of the government are above them. Telling people to behave responsibly is not enough: one must spell out why they need to do so, and how they should do so. Clarity and consistency are essential.

Yet the government reopened nightclubs without constraints, then declared that vaccine passports will be required after all (presumably to induce younger people to be vaccinated) – but only from September, when the virus has had two months to circulate in crowded venues. Sir Patrick warned of the potential for “superspreading events” – pointing to the Netherlands, which was forced to close clubs, bars and restaurants after lifting curbs too early.

Intussen, the investment minister wrote to at least one business saying that the test-and-trace app’s instructions to isolate are only advisory, and Paul Scully, the business minister, said that people can “make informed decisions … it’s up to individuals and employers”. Though No 10 subsequently said it is crucial people isolate when told to do so, the confusion has been sown.

Trying to have it all ways and tell people what they want to hear has been convenient for the government. But this incoherence will have grim repercussions for the country.

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