“I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives,” Boris Johnson said. Well, it’s taken 11 months, three Covid waves and more than 100,000 deaths, but he got there in the end. He won’t bucc it up this time, will he?
With nearly every word of his latest No.10 press conference, the PM stuck to the new script. Careful, evidence-based caution had finally replaced the boosterish overpromising and blithe complacency that dominated so much of his response to the pandemic last year.
The new “roadmap” is so eminently sensible that Keir Starmer couldn’t really find much to disagree with. At the heart of the strategy were the five-week pauses between stages, key periods to assess, reassess and deliberate the impact of each relaxation. Four separate reviews will, equally sensibly, take time to look at the data on social distancing, overseas travel, vaccine passports and open-air events.
And although the political catastrophe of a fourth lockdown is obviously a powerful incentive for the PM, overall the Downing Street briefing seemed to confirm that chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientist Patrick Vallance had finally won the battle for Johnson’s heart.
For possibly the first time in months of these “three amigos’” events, there wasn’t the slightest hint of difference of opinion. On everything from school reopening to vaccination, you couldn’t get a wafer-thin lateral flow test between them. Whitty talked about Covid being with us for “the next few winters”, but only in a way that flu has been for decades.
It may be that this famously unreflective PM has finally also looked into his own soul in recent weeks. Perhaps the most startling thing written about him last week was Fraser Nelson’s Telegraph column suggesting he has “started to blame himself” for delaying the first lockdown by a week: a decision that Imperial College London has claimed cost 21,000 lives. Whether he’s feeling guilty about locking down late this January too is an open question.
Yet while it will hearten many that Johnson has finally ditched his chaotic crisis management mode of governing, there lingers an unnerving thought: if even this optimism-biased prime minister has started to be cautious, the scientists’ warnings must be pretty worrying. And indeed, the Sage minutes and documents today confirmed just that.
The sheer precariousness of our current position, even with an amazing vaccine rollout, was laid bare in those Sage papers. Lifting restrictions by the end of April, as some Tory lockdown sceptics had demanded, would spark a huge new fourth wave of infections and risk doubling the death toll, they forecast.
Just as worrying were the minutes of the February 4 meeting that stated: “Relaxation of a significant number of restrictions over three months starting from the beginning of April could lead to hospital occupancy higher than the January peak whereas relaxation over nine months would result in a much smaller peak.” Relaxation over three months from April, doesn’t that sound like, er, the roadmap?
That same meeting also advised “an ‘adaptive management’ approach, responding to data, for example setting levels of infection or hospitalisation that would need to be reached before making changes”. “This makes it more likely that the epidemic can be kept under control,” it said.
But the PM clearly felt that was a bit too sage of Sage because his roadmap lacks any such figures or numbers to measure progress. Instead, we got a series of tentative dates for each stage of unlockdown. So we didn’t get the data points, but we did get the dates. Which wasn’t really the soundbite promised.
Johnson was honest enough to stress to MPs that lifting lockdown will lead to more deaths, partly because even among those vaccinated there will be a “large minority” who remain insufficiently protected. Add in the uncertainty about the impact of the vaccines on stopping transmission and that looks even more candid.
Despite all the uncertainty, Johnson couldn’t at times hide his own desperation for certainty. In his Commons statement, he said he believed his roadmap was “a one way road to freedom”, that “will guide us cautiously but irreversibly” (he said the i-word three times). Yet when asked by SkyNews’ Sam Coates if he would resign if there was a fourth lockdown, the PM wriggled for some wriggle room, saying it was only his “intention” that this was a one-way roadmap.
He was similarly shifty when asked about financial support, even though his own plans would seem to imply that Rishi Sunak will next week have to announce furlough is extended through May and possibly until June 21, when hospitality firms can fully reopen and make a profit. Despite a small change to isolation support for parents of kids with Covid, there was nothing to match Jeremy Hunt’s call for an isolation salary replacement scheme.
There was even a hint of a throwback to our old friend “Whackamole” from some in government today, as we learned that new outbreaks of new variants could lead to local lockdowns. While there will be no return to tiers over the next few months (amid fears the dominant strain travels just too fast), there will be flexibility to crack down in some places.
In fact, I suspect it will be the lack of regional tiering that most triggers the next Tory rebellion. Notwithstanding recent drops, some regional admissions rates are stubbornly higher than others (the midlands are double the rates of London and the south east). If any of those five-week pauses produces data that suggests different outcomes for different areas, there could be trouble ahead.
For now at least, the PM has a plan. Let’s see if he really has changed, and sticks to it.