Downing Street’s daily press briefings on the coronavirus crisis have been taking place for several weeks. The format is now grindingly familiar. One day’s briefing varies little from the next. The reluctance of ministers and officials to stray from the agreed line is insulting and has caused increasing impatience, particularly as evidence has mounted of the terrible planning, procurement and supply distribution failures by the UK government before and during the ongoing outbreak.

That daily rhythm was briefly broken on Wednesday evening by the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty. Departing from the usual cautious script in answer to a question, Prof Whitty made very clear that some of the government’s restrictive social measures are likely to remain in force until at least the end of 2020 and that it was “wholly unrealistic” to expect that life would return to normal soon. The Covid-19 virus was not going to disappear, so physical distancing and some lockdown measures were likely to continue for “really quite a long period of time”.

Prof Whitty’s comments were important and sobering. They contained little precise detail, let alone dates, but, given the government’s self-imposed press briefing disciplines, they will not have been a piece of freelancing. It was, instead, a calculated intervention. The comments contained little that many people have not suspected for some time as they watch the continuing grim march of the virus. They nevertheless dashed any expectations that the lockdown will be largely eased or lifted when the current phase expires around 8 May. This was, in other words, a softening-up exercise as well as a reminder that an exit strategy from the lockdown is proving hard to devise, not least because of earlier failures to prepare.

The manner and timing of the warning were important for at least three other reasons. The fact that Prof Whitty was chosen to deliver the sombre message means that ministers can continue to say they are deferring to the scientists, thus perhaps taking some of the pressure off the government for its mounting and increasingly serious list of policy failures. It also comes as, with the return of parliament, pressure mounts in parts of the Conservative party and elsewhere for the lockdown to be eased in early May in order to ease the pressures on business. Finally, it also meant that the UK government was able, by getting in first, to blunt some of the political impact of Thursday’s efforts by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to differentiate herself from the UK government approach by being more open about the need for restrictions to remain in place.

The Scottish government’s paper on possible next steps is in fact broadly in line with Prof Whitty’s remarks. This reflects a reality, not always obvious from Ms Sturgeon’s adept press briefing performances, but attacked in a new report by the Scottish Centre on European Relations, that Covid-19 policy in Scotland continues to be broadly the same as in the UK as a whole. But the Scottish government paper is more truthful and proactive than its UK counterpart. It is therefore welcome, and not just in Scotland.

The lifting of the lockdown, Ms Sturgeon makes clear, is likely to be phased and localised. There will be no return to the old normality for a long time, if at all. The reopening of schools, which many regard as an early priority for the sake of both children and their parents – and thus the economy – is likely to selective. Pubs and public events, likely to include sports, will be near the back of the queue. None of this will start soon, and there are no dates for any of it. The lockdown could be reimposed at short notice if virus cases spike upwards.

This is the new reality that everyone is likely to have to face over the coming months. The effect on economic life is likely to be dire and long-lasting. And it will bear down most heavily on those who are least able to withstand either the material consequences or the disease itself. There can be little doubt now. We are in this for the long haul. It is time to be more honest about it.

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