You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.
On March 29, as he was self-isolating in Downing Street after testing positive for Covid, Boris Johnson decided to pen a letter to every household in the country. You have probably forgotten what he wrote, but here’s a reminder of a key sentence.
“It’s important for me to level with you - we know things will get worse before they get better,” he wrote. “But we are making the right preparations, and the more we all follow the rules, the fewer lives will be lost and the sooner life can return to normal.”
Just days later, the PM was himself in hospital and struggling to breathe. Some 81,000 deaths and nearly nine months later, we face another scarily severe spike in cases, hospitalisations and deaths. But this time, Johhnson isn’t properly levelling with the public that things will get worse before they get better.
Today’s deteriorating statistics certainly point to a third wave building at an alarming rate in key parts of the country. Even when you strip out Wales’ IT blunder, today saw the second highest Covid case numbers for a month. In eastern and south east England, hospitalisation rates have either passed or are due to pass the awful peak of the first wave.
The numbers are rising in three quarters of English council areas, including sadly much of the north west region that had desperately hoped to come out of many months of the highest level of restrictions. It’s a bitter blow, especially after Matt Hancock only on Monday gave heavy hints to MPs like Hilary Benn that their areas would get some good news.
Of course, a lot can happen in a short space of time with this virus and it appears that even since Monday the cases have shot up, giving Hancock little option but to keep the curbs unchanged in many areas. Yet it’s precisely because he is clearly so worried about the strain on the NHS that the Christmas relaxations look even more risky.
The big unanswered question is just how big this curve has to be in order to impose another national lockdown. A blanket crackdown in January seems inevitable, not least because it appears that the bluntest and hardest restrictions are the only thing that flattens the curve (as shown by the first wave, the second wave and the Welsh firebreak).
The depressing fact that Tier 2 doesn’t really seem to work (and Tobias Ellwood’s gathering suggests even MPs don’t understand its rules, let alone Kay Burley) will alarm many. Just imagine if Liverpool – the poster child of the tier system – has to be moved back to Tier 3 when the next review takes place on December 23. Maybe, as with test and trace, the tiering is just rendered irrelevant when the virus reaches a certain level.
The key issue is whether the PM is reacting as quickly as the virus is spreading. I’ve written before about how Johnson and Rishi Sunak jointly seem to have a lastminute.com approach to governing. A Brexit trade deal certainly looks like it’s going to be a late, late show.
Today, teachers were told the day before the end of term that they would have to spend the Christmas holiday putting in place rapid testing regimes from January 4. Shambolic is how many teachers viewed that decision, and it followed a string of similarly eleventh-hour changes to guidance for headteachers that have characterised the pandemic and education policy.
Sunak also left it pretty late to announce he was extending the furlough scheme to next April. While hugely welcome, the chancellor’s decision came less than 24 hours before firms would have had to start issuing redundancy notices. It also prompted fears that tiers will be in place longer than the March end date many expected.
Which brings us perhaps to the real problem with the government’s refusal to change tack on Christmas relaxations. By making a January lockdown inevitable, that refusal risks even more economic pain as well as medical pain. Johnson’s late, late show on everything else has set a precedent for him tightening the festive regulations even further in coming days.
I know it sounds unlikely, but he can’t rule it out if the third wave turns into a tsunami over the next week. Can he?