JANET STREET-PORTER: Keir’s short-sharp shock is better than Southern politicians tearing us apart


The digital paint is barely dry on the multi-coloured PowerPoints and the whacky charts, and already the latest war game from Boris has hit the buffers. Dividing the country into zones designated into one of three tiers (a bit like houses at a particular posh public school) has left us totally confused about who’s in and who’s out.

And the squabbling over the ranking has already begun in earnest. Some places (like Essex) want to be upgraded and, according to the Mayor, London could be changing status any moment, so buy those toilet rolls now if you live inside the M25. The situation is fluid, as Bond would say – if his film ever sees the light of day.

The zones are based on Health Authorities which span very mixed areas, so if you’re a careful single person living in the countryside outside a city with a high student population like Newcastle, Durham, Liverpool or Manchester, you’re going to be treated a teenage super-spreader. Of course it’s unfair- a badly designed blunt instrument that’s doomed to failure.

Over the past week, as the government’s leaked talk of tiers and stringent lockdowns had turned into a detailed ‘plan’ (and I use those words loosely) which would have a huge negative impact on social life, jobs and businesses in the Midlands and the North.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer leaves Lambeth Palace following a press conference to propose a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown on Tuesday night

Local leaders have fought back, demanding concessions and cash for compliance. Mayors and council bosses (both Tory and Labour) in regions already treated as second-best by Westminster were understandably keen to squeeze as much cash as they could out of the government before they condemned thousands of their hospitality workers to an uncertain future.

To add to the confusion, the fragile consensus between Labour and the government in Westminster on Tuesday night finally disintegrated as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer chucked his toys out of the pram and held a press conference to propose a two to three week total lockdown for everyone, and sod the tier system.

Boris, the self-styled reincarnation of Churchill, has turned into the ultimate ditherer.

Three weeks ago, the boffins at SAGE asked for exactly what Starmer outlined today. The minutes of that meeting have only just been published – extraordinary in an era of emails and zoom.

You might think that the public – who pay for politicians – are entitled to transparency, but obviously these highly sensitive ruminations have to go through a rigorous cleansing process before the public can be allowed to know the science that Boris decided to ignore.

Three weeks of inaction during which infections have soared.

Granted, a so called national circuit-breaker might only delay the infection rate by 28 days, but a universal lockdown has the undoubted brilliance (unlike any other plan devised by Boris and co) of being simple and easy to understand, and horrible for everyone equally.

So the North and the Midlands and the regions can’t whinge about being picked on.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street with Chancellor Rishi Sunak ahead of a cabinet meeting on Tuesday

Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street with Chancellor Rishi Sunak ahead of a cabinet meeting on Tuesday

In contrast Boris’s traffic lights, zones and tiers are all so complicated that the chances of a granny in Bury or Bolton complying are about as good as Matthew Hancock snogging Lily James – and getting away with it like Dominic West.

And now the Prime Minister has enraged people more powerful than humble voters.

He’s now haggling with local Mayors like the Two Andys of Birmingham and Manchester, who very much see themselves as Big Cheeses who know their areas so much better than the people in Westminster and who will fight for huge government handouts before they comply.

Meanwhile, as his popularity plummets and he waffles for Britain, Boris is losing the new Blue Tory voters who flocked to his side in the last election. His forceful personality won his party 14 seats from Labour in the North East and 12 in the North West. That Red Wall fan club has faded into oblivion.

Boris is floundering – his ‘world beating’ test and trace system has hit the buffers. A similar scheme has failed in France, where the app has been abandoned, and it’s not worked in Scotland either.

The vaccine remains somewhere on the distant horizon, deep in 2021. Infections continue to rise (although not at the speed predicted by the scientists, along with the death rate – although it’s well below the level of last June).

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, in 10 Downing Street on Monday evening

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, in 10 Downing Street on Monday evening

So what to do now? Three weeks of ignoring SAGE’s demand for a lockdown for all is because Boris wants to be loved.

His giant ego dictates he must play the warrior leader and ‘defeat’ the virus – a task almost nowhere in the word has yet managed, with the exception of lovely (but tiny) New Zealand, which underwent the strictest lockdowns and has cut itself off from the outside world indefinitely, thus wiping out it’s crucial tourist revenue.

Of course the tier system is doomed to failure, along with all the other schemes dreamt up by Dominic Cummings and his team of whizz kids.

On the current evidence, Boris is better suited to competing on Pointless or Tipping Point than putting across a masterplan for bringing down the infection rate and taking the public with him.

Instinctively I’m against a strict lockdown, but as infections rise and the death toll climbs, equally I can’t bear to see the country divided into North versus South, the posh versus the terrace dwellers.

Southern public schoolboys in the cabinet telling working Northern people struggling to run decent pubs and restaurants (which, by the way, perform a valuable social function in keeping people sane) in our fabulous cities like Newcastle and Liverpool to just suck it up is just not politically sustainable.

There’s a lot to be said for the whole country doing something ghastly together. It cuts through class, age, social strata and geography.

If we all have to hunker down again for two weeks, it might make any difference to the end outcome but at least we might rediscover some of the national solidarity that made the first lockdown not just bearable but actually in some ways spiritually uplifting.

And if the Scots and the Welsh will be sure to follow. They won’t want to look utterly pathetic and small minded.

But the Prime Minister needs to be decisive for once and stop dithering. As a much greater writer than me once said: ‘If it were done… then ’twere well it were done quickly.’

And let’s face it, Boris – it won’t be your first U-turn. What’s one more? 

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