Next week, in the wake of the Easter weekend, the Government must make a decision about the extension of lockdown. There can be little doubt about what will happen: it will be prolonged for another three weeks. And it will surely be extended again in early May if the number of deaths is still rising.
However, there is reason to think that this may not be the case. That possibility, even probability, points towards a hazardous decision for Ministers – and the rest of us.
The trick in due course will be not to snatch defeat from out of the jaws of victory: in other words, the Government will want to time the flow of people out of lockdown in such a way that it doesn’t become a flood – thereby collapsing the NHS, as a second wave of the virus begins, in the wake of the service having remained on its feet, just about.
(This route is the essentially the “economy first” model of gradually ending the shutdown, as set out on ConservativeHome earlier this week by Liam Fox.)
Many of us hope not that the lockdown will end next week, but that Ministers will be able to point to the rudiments of a road map out of it. They are not on the same page about whether to do so – for reasons that essentially are institutional rather than personal.
The Department of Health, preoccupied with the short-term condition of the NHS, wants nothing to be said that might somehow lead people to believe that the worst is already over and the lockdown can therefore be flouted.
The Treasury, charged with the stewardship of the economy, takes a medium-term view. It argues that there’s no point in saving the NHS now if it is lost in, say, six months – as it will do if the lockdown lasts that long, along with the whole of the rest of the economy, and all the lives, living standards and livelihoods which depend on it.
To which the Health Department responds that if the NHS buckles now, with critically-ill patients dying in corridors, hospital car parks and their homes, this Government won’t be around to have charge of the medium-term anyway.
To this already complicated medley of cards has been added a hideous joker in the pack – Boris Johnson’s illness.
Planning a road out of lockdown would have been difficult enough with the Prime Minister in place. Having him absent makes it harder.
For so he will surely be next week, even on the most optimistic calculation. We hope and pray that he will be back in Downing Street long before Easter Monday. But it is clear that, even if this is so, he will need to rest on return: some calculations have it that recuperation could take weeks rather than days.
At any rate, the Prime Minister can no more rush out soon to lead the Government, in the wake of having been in intensive care, any more than Mohamed Salah could rush out to play for Liverpool if he had broken a leg.
Which brings us to Dominic Raab. This morning, some commentators are trying to tangle these complexities further by suggesting that there is confusion about the constitutional position. And in a country like the United Kingdom with an unwritten constitution, it is true that few things are ever entirely straightforward.
But the basic position seems to us to be simple enough. The First Secretary of State is the deputy who Boris Johnson has appointed to take charge in his absence.
As long as he holds the confidence of the Cabinet, Conservative MPs and the Commons, he can therefore do so. There is no reason whatsoever why all three shouldn’t stand with him. He should therefore work to unpick the political knot that we describe with the support of his colleagues.
At a time when Coronavirus victims are dying in hospital without their families to comfort them; when NHS staff and others are putting their lives at risk, and when a mass of people are going broke, this is no time for political games.
As for if the Prime Minister is incapacitated for longer, let’s cross that bridge if we come to it, which hopefully we won’t. For now all this site say is that no constitutional problem arises in having a Conservative MP in charge of government who isn’t the Party leader: remember Chamberlain and Churchill.
We end as yesterday with every hope and prayer that Johnson is back in the saddle as soon as is practicable. The country already misses the bounce, can-do spirit, brains, zest and genius for communication of December’s near-landslide winner. In the meantime: rally round Raab.