Cautious Johnson faces battle with own MPs over lockdown exit | World news

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When Boris Johnson stands at the dispatch box on Monday to deliver his roadmap for easing Covid restrictions for what he hopes will be the final time, there is likely to be a sigh of relief from his scientific advisers who will have won the most recent battle.

Johnson is now gearing up for the next tussle, which will be with his MPs. There is a truce with the cabinet.

Unlike the first lockdown, when the newspapers were full of arguments between the hawks and doves around the cabinet table, this time ministers have kept their counsel. They are sold on Johnson’s promise that slower means more permanent.

Cabinet ministers have been keen to avoid their press caricatures: Rishi Sunak as the bold reopener whom sceptic MPs saw as their champion, and Matt Hancock the doom-monger lockdown fanatic.

“Matt has ended up being the one looking a bit exposed, ironically, because he’s been talking about a ’great British summer’ and Rishi has not engaged in the debate whatsoever. You can see the entire cabinet just want to keep well away from this debate,” one Tory insider observed.

MPs have noticed how over the week leading up to the great unlocking that the prime minister has carefully emphasised in public the different points his scientific advisers have been making in private.


Last Monday, he said he would “like to see the rates of infection come down very low indeed … we’ll want to see those rates really, really low”. He also underlined the extra risk that hospitality poses, which scientists have spoken about, to the dismay of the industry.

One cabinet source said it had certainly been noticed how the parameters had gently shifted – and questioned whether that could continue. “Scientific advisers started off saying, it’s important we get groups 1-4 vaccinated, then it’s groups 1-9 and now it’s about case rates and transmission,” the source said. “The whole thing has slowly become about case rates.”

That intimation has worried a lot of Tories who are likely to demand answers on Monday. Many Conservative MPs will highlight some sectors still facing oblivion, such as international travel, aviation, weddings, nightclubs and festivals.

With the vaccine rollout now being revised to a more optimistic timetable – with all under-50s expected to be jabbed by 1 April – the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs has said there is no reason why all restrictions cannot end by 30 April.

Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, has highlighted the effect the pandemic is having on the prospects for young people and their mental health.

Dozens more have backed the What About Weddings campaign that is urging ministers to allow nuptials to go ahead with no restrictions from May.

The group’s chair, Mark Harper, has said travel restrictions should also be lifted to allow summer holidays abroad for the vaccinated. He has sounded alarm about the idea of keeping case rates low in order to lower the chance of new variants emerging, saying restrictions cannot continue indefinitely because of the risk of a mutation emerging.

Scientists are likely to point out that high case rates still mean high hospitalisations and a higher risk of mutations.

Johnson has one trump card when he faces his MPs – he believes the public still strongly support a cautious approach and that there is no nationwide clamour for a hasty unlocking while hospitalisations and deaths remain high.

But one Tory insider said they believed No 10 may have underestimated how quickly that could shift.

“The whole mood of the country is going to change in a way I think loads of people in government haven’t really clocked yet,” they said. “For a year the vaccine has been billed as coming to save us but we’ve now had 20 million vaccinated, we are seeing infection rates going down, hospitalisations down.

“The daily death total has so much impact on how the public sees these things too. When that starts to drop dramatically it will have a huge effect. Other countries also have a huge effect. We have a danger that we will look well behind other countries unlocking even when we’ve vaccinated 10 times as many people. And the public mood could change.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Cautious Johnson faces battle with own MPs over lockdown exit | World news

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