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At some point towards the end of next week Boris Johnson will make one of the trickier decisions even of this pandemic period: whether to lift the final tranche of Covid rules. Some of those watching the closest will be his own MPs.
The PM and his aides will be mindful of both the more vocal lockdown dissenters centred on the Covid Recovery Group, and also for any signs that a wider group of Tory backbenchers could be setting themselves against delay.
Conservative MPs’ views about whether to shed the bulk of restrictions in England as planned on 21 June remain distinctly mixed, and there are those who say they could imagine selling the idea of a brief delay to constituents, particularly given the threat of high-transmissible Covid variants.
“If they say it’s going to be 28 June, we can take that. But protecting July and August is the main thing,” one said. Another accepted it might take time to limit the spread of the Delta variant: “If we need to take until 28 June or 1 July, I’m not going to die in a ditch on that.”
But others sound notably less flexible and, as MPs return to Westminster following the week-long recess, Downing Street will be keenly aware of the likelihood of a backlash if they ultimately decide to slow down or limit the reopening process.
One backbencher who is not among the vocal anti-lockdown contingent said he believed most colleagues would see any slippage of the 21 June date as “unacceptable”.
“Once you’ve vaccinated all vulnerable people you can’t delay everything because of variants – viruses will continue to mutate and we have to get on with things,” he said. “I don’t think the PM has much political room not to release restrictions. Many of the scientists clearly will never say it is safe to reopen.”
There was, the MP said, considerable mistrust of scientific advisers “who are always on the media demanding constant lockdown”, and a worry that the goalposts for safe unlocking were being moved: “And the PM knows all of this.”
Another MP said the issue had become something of a “sleeping dog” during recess, but that Johnson should not confuse a lack of noise for acquiescence to any delay. “No 10 would be silly to underestimate the strength of feeling,” they said.
Ministers have promised to provide a week’s notice of the changes, and with 14 June falling on a Monday, that leaves next week as the final opportunity for Johnson as his team to study data and solicit advice.
Some backbenchers argue that Thursday’s decision to further limit international travel because of new variants is a sign of Downing Street trying to prepare the ground as best as possible for what some newspapers have termed “freedom day”.
Another said: “If all the evidence suggests very few people are going to hospital then that will encourage the libertarian instincts of the PM. Now is the time to reap the rewards of the vaccine dividend.”
Even by normal Covid standards, both Downing Street and the health department are being notably coy about what might happen, repeatedly stressing that while nothing has happened to definitively knock the timetable off course, no decision has been made.
One MP raised the possibility of ministers going against the current England-wide approach to lift restrictions everywhere except a handful of areas where the Delta variant is most prevalent. “A small group of ultra-libertarians would oppose this, of course, but most colleagues would accept it.”
That is a balance of backbench opinion which Johnson and his team would happily accept. Whether they will achieve it remains to be seen.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: End of lockdown poses Boris Johnson one of his toughest decisions | Boris Johnson