Coronavirus: Boris Johnson’s trademark optimism is tinged with a fear of death and economic destruction

Boris Johnson is a man changed by a disease he described today as an “unexpected and invisible mugger”, strangling the life from its victims indiscriminately and with frightening speed.

Walking steadily to the podium in Downing Street was a prime minister apparently torn between two sides of himself.

The trademark boundless optimism still there but tinged by talk of mourning and death.

His long-held libertarian streak coloured by a fear that releasing the country from lockdown too soon could lead to more victims and economic destruction on an unprecedented scale.

Determined to project positivity, Mr Johnson conjured the spirit of Captain Tom Moore whose fundraising effort has inspired the nation, and spoke of “our apparent success”.

But under the surface his message was cautious, warning the country is poised at a moment of “maximum risk” and lingering on the spectre of death more than once.

He said “sheer grit and guts” have got the UK through the first stage of the virus, suggesting progress has been made.

But just as quickly he warned the public not to give up now as releasing lockdown measures too early would unleash “a new wave of death”.

When seconds later he claimed “we have so nearly succeeded”, his audience could be forgiven for wondering if they were listening to the same speech.

The tension between these two versions of the prime minister run through the heart of the battle to conquer the virus itself.

Mr Johnson wants the public to be buoyed by how far the country has come and by the considerable success of an NHS coping, with spare capacity should it be required. The prime minister falls back on positivity, it is his default position.

But even the most optimistic among us can’t deny the power and unpredictability of COVID-19.

Without proper testing, tracking and tracing a second peak could creep up on the country and overwhelm the health service before anything could be done to stop it.

Even tweaking small aspects of the lockdown may have unpredictable results which could take weeks to wrestle control over again.

Businesses are struggling and mental health, domestic violence and underlying conditions are pressing concerns too.

Mr Johnson knows this and he must now walk a fine line between these issues to chart a way forward in which, inevitably, more people will die.

He won’t do this alone, promising more transparency and closer working with opposition leaders and business – a nod perhaps to the scale of the task ahead and the power that will be needed to persuade the public to support whatever comes next.

His speech was the result of a need, clearly understood by those in Downing Street, for the public to see the prime minister is, if not recovered, at least on the way there.

But his blonde hair, grown longer after weeks without a trim, couldn’t hide the pallid complexion left behind after battling a virus which is still killing hundreds every day.

Mr Johnson, like the country, is keen to put the worst behind him; but this will a long, hard recovery and we’re not there yet.

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