Prime minister Boris Johnson, the person responsible for making decisions on coronavirus and lockdown, said on Monday he was “looking at the potential of relaxing some measures” before mid-February.
That might sound a bit out of sync with the message from health secretary Matt Hancock, who on Sunday said the lifting of lockdown was a “long, long, long way” off.
It’s also, some may say, at odds with what Johnson himself said during the very same interview.
When asked about the full reopening of schools, the PM said: “I do think, now this massive achievement has been made of rolling out this vaccination programme, I think people want to see us making sure we don’t throw that away by having a premature relaxation and then another big surge of infection.”
The government has promised to offer the Covid-19 vaccine to around 15m of the most vulnerable people, including everyone over 70, by February 15. Downing Street later clarified that Johnson meant the government would “look at” relaxing rules before then, which is ministerial speak for having a discussion, but that no changes would be made ahead of that date.
At a time when the country is desperate for some light at the end of the tunnel, unclear messaging from the prime minister on the lifting of lockdown restrictions is... not exactly welcome.
It’s a confusing statement
Almost immediately after his statement to reporters, Downing Street moved to clear up what he said, confirming there will be no changes before mid-February.
“The prime minister was just making clear that we continue to look at the latest evidence in terms of the transmission of the virus, the number of people hospitalised, and the number of people who sadly go on to die,” the PM’s official spokesperson said.
“And he was making the point that ahead of February 15, which as you know is the review point, we will look at that evidence closely, and that will inform what we may or may not be able to ease from the 15th onwards.”
They added: “It has always been our intention to ease restrictions where we can from that point on the 15th, and schools are obviously our top priority.”
Just last week, Johnson suggested lockdown rules could remain in place until the summer.
Having previously said schools would be the first to open, on Monday he refused to guarantee they would be back before Easter.
“Believe me, there’s nothing I want to do more than reopen schools. I’ve fought to keep schools open for as long as I possibly could,” he said.
“We want to see schools back as fast as possible. We want to do that in a way that is consistent with fighting the epidemic and keeping the infection rate down.”
As he raised the prospect of lifting some restrictions, Johnson also said he was “definitely looking at” the possibility of stricter rules for travel.
“We have to realise there is at least the theoretical risk of a new variant that is a vaccine-busting variant coming in. We’ve got to be able to keep that under control,” Johnson said.
It’s at odds with government messaging
As the prime minister himself admitted just days ago, the UK variant of coronavirus that has helped drive infection rates up could be more deadly.
“We’ve been informed today that, in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant, the variant that was first identified in London and the south-east, may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” Johnson said at a Downing Street briefing on Friday.
And on Sunday, Hancock described the end of lockdown as being a “long, long, long way” off, saying case numbers were still “incredibly high” and the NHS remained under pressure.
“There is early evidence that the lockdown is starting to bring cases down but we are a long, long, long way from being low enough because the case rate was incredibly high,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“You can see the pressure on the NHS – you can see it every day.”
Education secretary Gavin Williamson is also expected to confirm this week that schools will not reopen after the February half-term break, as ministers had hoped.
Scientists say we can’t put a date on it
At Friday’s press conference, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance rejected calls from those who want restrictions to be eased by a specific date, arguing the situation must be assessed before a careful releasing.
He said: “The key thing, I think, is to keep watching, measuring and assessing where we are and not getting too hooked up on specific dates, because we don’t know at the moment.
“We need to watch, wait, measure and release carefully as we go through it.”
At the same briefing, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the coronavirus situation in the UK remained “extremely precarious”.
He said: “In terms of the infection rate, if you took the country as a whole and just averaged it, then the number of infections is broadly going down but it is at a very high level, and it is extremely precarious – I really want to stress this.
“A very small change and it could start taking off again from an extremely high base, and there are some areas of the country and some age groups in which it does not appear to be going down – for example, in people [aged] 20 to 30, the evidence is that it may still be increasing in some parts of the country.
“It is not solidly going down and it is very, very high.”
Vallance also said the new variant means roughly 13 or 14 out of every 1,000 men in their 60s who get infected would be expected to die, compared to 10 out of every 1,000 as with the original strain.
Despite last week’s figures suggesting infection rates have decreased in some parts of the country, the government’s own scientific advisers have warned that even after being inoculated, people must still abide by lockdown restrictions or they could still risk infecting others further down the priority list.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said it was still not known if people who had received the Covid-19 vaccine could still pass on the virus to others, even though they were protected from falling ill themselves.
Clear messaging is vital
Boris Johnson and his cabinet members have been criticised numerous times during the pandemic for their confusing messaging.
Dr Philip Seargeant, a linguist and senior lecturer at the Open University, told HuffPost UK in December that there is a “tricky balance” to be struck between “the technical and the transparent”, and suggests ministers and scientists have to act as if they’re doctors talking to patients.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam – a regular at the Downing Street press conferences – has won praise for being “more honest by not sugarcoating things” compared to Johnson’s “exaggerated optimism”.
Seargeant, author of the book The Art of Political Storytelling, said: “Boris Johnson always seems to favour the exaggerated, over-the-top use of language, and while arguably it’s been quite successful in his political career as a whole, it’s not ideal for a situation like this. He’s often good at coming up with attention grabbing phrases, and vivid descriptions. And he often trades in a sort of mock-heroic hyperbole. But that’s not really what’s called for in a scenario like this.”