One consistent characteristic of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK is that at the bleakest moments in the health situation, Boris Johnson’s position in the Conservative Party has been at its strongest, but when the health news is less unremittingly grim, the internal politics become harder for the Prime Minister.
Overwhelmingly, the country rallied around Johnson last spring. His popularity started to fray once the simple ‘stay at home’ message was replaced by a more complex and nuanced one. This was also the point at which some of Conservative MPs started to argue that restrictions needed to be relaxed more quickly.
By the autumn, the process of relaxing restrictions had to be reversed. A pattern started to emerge. The Government’s scientist advisers, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove would favour tighter restrictions; Keir Starmer would eventually called for these; Conservative MPs would complain that the existing ones were bad enough; the Prime Minister would delays making a decision until the evidence was overwhelming, and would then act. Whether with hindsight or foresight, the evidence suggests that the Prime Minister was right to act but that he should have done so earlier.
This approach – as seen with the autumn lockdown, the Christmas restrictions and the January closure of schools – is far from an ideal way to handle a pandemic, but timely interventions would have made party management all the more difficult.
We are now entering into a new stage of the crisis. Notwithstanding that Covid deaths are at record levels and likely to rise for another week or two, there are now reasons to be optimistic. The most recent lockdown is working and cases are falling. The first stage of the vaccine rollout appears to be accelerating. Focus now appears to be moving to be where the country will be in mid-February when, all being well, the first four priority groups – who have constituted 90 per cent of fatalities – will have received a first dose. What happens then?
Steve Baker fired a warning shot, albeit one aimed at his own foot, in writing to Parliamentary colleagues calling for them to contact the Chief Whip demanding that the Government set out “a clear plan for when our full freedoms are restored and a guarantee that [the lockdown] strategy will not be used again next winter”. If not, “the debate will become about the PM’s leadership”.
Within a couple of hours of this communication leaking, Baker tweeted his undying loyalty to the Prime Minister. All somewhat embarrassing, but maybe this was just an error of timing. Many MPs will be calling for a return to complete normality once the first phase of the vaccination process has been completed, and will react in horror if they do not get their way. The Government will have to lift restrictions or have a good explanation for failing to do so.
It will not be enough to say that the people most enthusiastically calling for an immediate “restoration of our full freedoms” are the same people who have been consistently obtuse in understanding the implications of the pandemic.
Some of them may have argued that the virus would disappear in the summer, that we were close to herd immunity, that rising cases were caused by false positives, that there have not been many excess deaths this winter and that lockdowns do not work (although it is unclear as to whether they question whether the virus is spread through human contact or whether lockdowns reduce human contact).
Such positions may have been understandable at earlier stages in this crisis but should have been long abandoned. The best anti-lockdown argument – ‘we cannot do this forever’ – is no longer applicable now we have a vaccine.
Nonetheless, if the Infection Fatality Rate is going to be reduced to a very low percentage, there is clearly a case for easing restrictions given the enormous economic costs of the lockdown. Why might this not be the approach the Government takes?
First, deaths may well start to fall substantially in March, but pressure on the NHS – especially Intensive Care Units – will remain high. Many of the people in ICUs are under the age of 60.
Second, the new variant is very transmissible. A rapid return to normal is likely to result in very high infection levels. The IFR might be very low, but if the numbers infected are very high, deaths – and deaths of relatively young people – will still be significant whilst Long Covid will be a major problem. Meanwhile, those vulnerable people who are not vaccinated or for whom the vaccine might not work will be very exposed.
Third, in the circumstances of widespread infections, consumer and employee behaviour will not return to normal. A lesson of the last year is that there is not a straightforward trade-off between health and the economy – scared people change their behaviour.
Fourth, where there is an opportunity for widespread transmission of the virus, there is a greater opportunity for the virus to mutate and escape the vaccine.
I make these points not to argue that all restrictions should remain in place for months on end (I happen to think that there is a very persuasive case to reopen primary schools before long, but that the speed at which restrictions are lifted is going to require some finely-balanced decisions on which reasonable people will disagree. Or to put it another way, there is going to be an almighty row in the Conservative Party in late February and early March.
There are two things the Government could do to contain this.
The Government would be wise to start explaining the considerations sooner rather than later, even if that means dashing some unrealistic expectations. They have to retain flexibility to react to new circumstances (which is why calls for ‘guarantees’ are ill-judged), and detailed programme of how restrictions will be removed would be unwise, but the public deserve to be treated as grown-ups.
Assuming that the removal of restrictions will be gradual and cautious, the Government should make that argument now, even if it antagonises some MPs earlier than otherwise. Prepare the ground.
It also needs to be ambitious in completing the rollout of the vaccine. At present, the process appears to be going very well, and there are reasons to think that the Government is, uncharacteristically, under-promising and over-delivering. The February target for the top four priority groups looks attainable, and the rest of phase one looks set to be done by early April at the latest.
It is vital, however, that momentum on the rollout is not lost once the priority groups have been done. If at all possible, completing the vaccination programme in the early summer, rather than the autumn, will help the country – and the Government – avoid a whole heap of pain.
The main constraint appears to be supply but if this can be addressed, there is a case for being more imaginative in the delivery of injections (I have argued for using the local government infrastructure that sets up polling stations to deliver vaccinations). However it is done, the Government must keep its foot on the pedal in terms of vaccinating the whole population as quickly as possible.
It is sadly inevitable that many thousands of Covid deaths will occur in the next few weeks, but this does appear to be a case when the darkest hour will be just before the dawn. The new dawn, however, may bring new challenges for the Prime Minister.