Coronavirus: Now it's serious for No 10

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Boris Johnson at Public Health England's National Infection Service in Colindale in north LondonImage source, Reuters

Now it's serious.

Handling the coronavirus is plainly at the top of the government's to-do list. Boris Johnson came under attack in recent days for not being visible enough at a time of a potential health emergency.

No 10 clearly now wants to show they are trying hard to contain the outbreak. But the government will be tested on many different fronts. First off, they want to appear to be taking the disease as seriously as it ought to be.

With some cities around the world in lockdown and the rate of the spread picking up here too, the prime minister's words today don't leave you in much doubt about how serious a situation the country could face.

But managing the outbreak is a balancing act with lots of factors. The government wants the public to take the virus seriously, but it doesn't want panic. Ministers want the option of closing schools, or cancelling big events, or changing the numbers of teachers schools have to have on duty per child.

But they do not, at this stage, want to use those kinds of measures straight away and cause widespread disruption to people's daily lives.

The government wants, of course, to protect as many people's health as possible but also to protect the economy, the prime minister acknowledging that there may well be an "economic downside", here at home as well as in the countries that have already been much more affected.

The Treasury is publishing a Budget next week too, which not so long ago government aides were vowing "had to be big, and had to be bold". But in this context - and of course with a different politician in charge - No 11's big day next week might be rather different.

They are already making some extra taxpayers' cash available for the health service. Boris Johnson promised he would allocate the NHS whatever it asked for which, with the scale of the outbreak as yet impossible to predict, could be rather a large blank cheque.

Media caption,

Boris Johnson on coronavirus: "We will face a challenge in the weeks, months ahead"

Behind closed doors in government there is a realisation that an outbreak of coronavirus could go on for many months and cause a lot of disruption to many people's lives.

Many of us might be asked to work at home. There are questions too about how self-employed people or those on zero hours contracts can make a living. What happens to the local elections in May? Can the NHS, already under a lot of pressure, really cope?

There is a lot that neither the public, nor our politicians, can be sure of. The science will guide the approach that ministers take, but that is understandably changing by the day.

Boris Johnson's government is certainly no longer in the position of surveying the new political landscape and wondering which of its priorities it can choose to deal with first. Instead, it faces an immediate and highly complicated question it needs to answer.

Get it wrong and there could be serious political damage too.