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It was an uncharacteristically subdued Boris Johnson who announced from Downing Street that Britain had surpassed the first, phenomenally ambitious target of giving 15 million people a coronavirus vaccine: this was a success, yes, but it was “no moment to relax”, the prime minister said on Monday.
The boosterish rhetoric has been restrained for several weeks – gone is the talk that led to claims there would be normality by November last year, or that it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas. Now, escape from the third lockdown must be “cautious but irreversible”.
Next Monday, when Johnson unveils his escape-from-lockdown plan, will be critical, however. Will the prime minister hold fast to this new lower-key approach? Or will he be tempted to offer some concessions to the siren voices on his right?
For now, rare political space has emerged for Downing Street. After the chaos of Dominic Cummings era, senior Tory MPs talk of “a more mature tone” at No 10, encouraged they say by new advisers such as the chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, and the press secretary, Allegra Stratton.
It has been helped by the clear success of the vaccination programme, which has taken the pressure off what had been a beleaguered Downing Street operation, riven by leaks and last-minute decision-making in 2020. And for the moment, a soft roadmap has already been set, through background briefings to MPs and the media.
“At the moment Conservative MPs and the country think they know what they are getting next week: schools to open on 8 March, non-essential retail in April and pubs and restaurants in May,” said one party adviser. “The party is largely onboard, but the problem is once you get detail, people will start finding things to complain about.”
Lockdown critics had been largely quiet in January and during the fierce cold of early to mid-February as hospitalisations and deaths soared, and the NHS was on its knees.
But they have not gone away: on Thursday, the Daily Mail declared on its front page: “Now take the breaks off, Boris” – complete with a lead editorial saying: “Set the nation free!” Days earlier, an editorial from the former supreme court justice Jonathan Sumption in the Mail on Sunday was headlined: “Zero Covid is a mirage. The virus is here to stay and we all (even Sage scientists) need to learn to live with it.”
A handful of vocal lockdown sceptics remain among the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of backbench MPs, organised by Mark Harper and Steve Baker and with the support others such as Charles Walker and Jackie Doyle-Price, the Thurrock MP who argued on Monday: “The moment you open schools up then there is no excuse for not opening up the rest of the economy.”
Pub and bar owners this week followed suit, announcing they were refusing to cooperate with the Department for Business amid a lack of clarity about the future of drinking. The Campaign for Pubs argued they should be allowed to open indoors relatively quickly after being permitted to welcome customers outdoors – an example of the kind of pressure that is lurking for ministers.
Yet, the arguments remain muted at the highest levels of government. Whitehall insiders say the most notable advocate for earlier unlocking in government, chancellor Rishi Sunak, with a budget to prepare for on 3 March, has been careful to avoid public interventions. But eyebrows have been raised about “a shift in the goalposts”.
On Wednesday, Johnson visited a vaccination centre in Cwmbran, south Wales, arguing it was “data not dates” that would drive lockdown decisions. That morning, a briefing to the Daily Telegraph suggested daily cases numbers would have to be “in the hundreds, not thousands” before there could be significant easing of restrictions, a story that was widely believed even as No 10 tried to squash it.
With case numbers running at 12,200 a day, that would suggest weeks more spent holding the line. “At the moment we seem to have flipped somehow, and I’m not sure how it happened, to make unlocking now dependent partially on case rates,” said one cabinet source. Health secretary Matt Hancock, renowned for being cautious about easing restrictions, had previously said the four key criteria deciding the roadmap out of lockdown were the success of the vaccine programme, reducing hospitalisations, reducing deaths and controlling the spread of new variants – not mentioning case rates.
But for all the agitation among some parts of the Conservative party, the country largely has a different view. Polling suggests a surprisingly stoical public are prepared to wait. A survey taken on Wednesday by Redfield & Wilton for Politics Home suggested that 55% of Conservatives and 54% of Labour voters want to see everybody vaccinated before a return to normal life – although that could last into the summer.
That too is the argument of leading scientists like Devi Sridhar, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, an adviser to Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, who argued in the Guardian this week that to limit transmission of the virus “the majority of the population will need to be vaccinated”. Getting to “zero Covid”, she tweeted subsequently, is about “getting to low prevalence and keeping it there”.
Certainly there is no appetite amongst the senior scientists who advise Johnson for anything other than a gradual approach for now. “I think all of us are agreed, scientists and non-scientists, that we don’t want another big wave of infection,” said Dame Angela McLean, the government’s deputy chief scientific adviser, at a Commons select committee hearing this week.
The characteristically cautious Prof Chris Whitty this week emphasised hospital admissions data implying it too justified a slow unlocking. More people were still in hospital now – at over 21,000 – than at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April last year, England’s chief medical officer said standing alongside Johnson at Monday’s Downing Street press conference.
Yet there is recognition in Whitehall that the data could shift, and may already be shifting in response to the vaccination programme. “If you’re driven by the data and not by dates, right now, you should be looking at earlier unlocking, said Mark Woolhouse, a professor at the Edinburgh University, speaking at the same meeting as McLean.
Covid deaths, whilst still high, are falling markedly. The current seven-day average of around 500 a day is well below what was feared by Sage, the government’s scientific advisory body. It had warned of 800 a day in mid-February, helped by higher than expected vaccine take-up among the over-70s. But progress remains tentative for now.
The theory is that Johnson’s roadmap out of England’s third national lockdown has already been well trailed to a pre-conditioned public. But the question will be whether the notoriously unpredictable prime minister can stick to it, resisting his “freedom-loving” instincts and knowing the political pressure that is lurking is around the corner.
At Cwmbran, the prime minister was clearly buoyed by the sight of a busy vaccination centre, joking bizarrely to nursing staff that he “felt like OJ Simpson” as he struggled to put on blue rubber gloves. The jokiness was briefly back. As one former aide observed: “I think he’s been a bit more disciplined recently, yes. But it’s easy when the pressure is off. Let’s see what happens next week.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The path out of lockdown: can Boris Johnson keep his boosterism at bay? | World news