Boris Johnson admitted “this is not how we want to live our lives”, as he announced pubs will shut in Merseyside, with the possibility of further restrictions to follow across the North.
For the Prime Minister, the second wave of coronavirus has forced a change in tone and an acknowledgement that his usual displays of “buoyancy and elan” are inappropriate.
The sombre Commons statement announcing his new three-tier approach to restrictions was the latest indication that he is seeking to avoid accusations that he has been overly optimistic in his prognosis for the UK’s recovery from coronavirus.
Three months ago, Mr Johnson stood at a podium in 10 Downing Street and said: “It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest – possibly in time for Christmas.”
Instead, in Merseyside, and possibly elsewhere, pub doors will be closed until the middle of November at the earliest and restrictions on households mixing indoors across swathes of the country make a traditional Christmas appear unlikely.
The approach from Mr Johnson’s administration has led former civil service chief Lord O’Donnell to accuse ministers of breaking one of the “cardinal rules” of Government: “They have over-promised and under-delivered.”
Examples can be found throughout the Government’s handling of the crisis.
In June, Mr Johnson promised a 24-hour turnaround for in-person test results by the end of the month – but the latest figures from NHS Test and Trace showed that goal was met in just 25.7% of cases.
The NHS Test and Trace system was supposed to be “world beating”, but the most recent figures were its worst on record, with just 68.6% of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England reached in the week ending September 30.
The situation has not been made easier by almost 16,000 positive cases being initially left out from the tracing system due to a computer glitch.
Mr Johnson also faces difficulties at Westminster, with unrest on his own benches over measures such as the 10pm curfew, and Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour shifting towards stronger criticism although not – yet – outright opposition to the restrictions the Government has introduced.
The Prime Minister defended his approach in the Commons, saying he was treading a “narrow path” between an economically devastating second national lockdown and the “intolerable death toll” of removing restrictions and letting the virus rip through communities.
“I take no pleasure whatsoever in imposing restrictions on these businesses,” Mr Johnson said.
“Nor do I want to stop people enjoying themselves, but we must act to save lives.”
Coronavirus cases have quadrupled in the last three weeks and there are more Covid-19 patients in hospital than when the national lockdown was announced on March 23.
Former director of public prosecutions Sir Keir used the Commons statement to set out the case against the Prime Minister – his “serial failure, combined with the repeated leaks and briefings to newspapers, has fatally eroded public confidence just when we need it most”.