POLITICS
19/05/2021 22:22 BST | Updated 24/05/2021 15:03 BST

Boris Johnson Marries Confidence With Caution On The Indian Covid Variant Risk

Starmer struggles, as nation holds its breath for more data

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Boris Johnson’s carefully chosen words in prime minister’s question time were – like most of his Covid statements these days – part science, part politics. He said he had looked at the data again and he could tell the Commons “we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.”

That word “confidence” is beloved of statisticians (often followed by the word ‘interval’) precisely because it indicates degrees of probability, a range of outcomes, a mix of certainty and uncertainty. But in the hands of a politician it also signals reasons to be cheerful (parts one, two, three).

The interval that matters most to the PM is the next seven to 10 days, during which the government will collectively hold its breath as more information is frantically gathered on just how the vaccines have coped with variant B.1617.2. In the latest Downing Street briefing, Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said the data “will begin to firm up sometime next week”.

In contrast to Matt Hancock trying to clarify the “crystal clear” clarity of ministers’ pick-n-mix pronouncements on foreign travel, it was Van-Tam who gave the most transparent and interesting answers.

Calming fears that the Indian variant could spark a significant summer wave of Covid, he said “most people feel it is going to be somewhere in the middle” of a few per cent and 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant.

Van-Tam’s estimate suggests just over 25% extra transmissibility, a figure that some scientists think can be managed without totally tearing up the roadmap out of lockdown. Some social distancing measures, such as mask-wearing and working from home, may have to be maintained for a few weeks longer than the June 21 ‘final’ date.

Note that the PM’s line since January has been that this roadmap is “cautious but irreversible”. Of course, real maps are neither reversible or irreversible, they just offer routes which can be travelled in either direction. But one consequence of his catchphrase is that, as long as he doesn’t re-impose restrictions, it allows him freedom to delay parts of his exit plans.

It’s not just on Covid that Johnson is displaying a not-so-quiet confidence either. Emboldened by his May 6 elections triumphs in England, allies say he’s gearing up to take on his backbenches over planning reform.

And on the vexed issue of farmers versus free trade, he made plain in PMQs he was backing Liz Truss’s plans to hatch new deals with countries like Australia (and the US?). Unless he agrees hefty quotas to protect the UK, this could be an historic, corn-laws style schism within his party, yet he sounded up for the fight.

Keir Starmer, however, still looks bruised by his own recent internal battles. Political goal scoring, like real goal scoring, is often a matter of confidence. Starmer will know too well what happens when even a talented football striker just keeps missing. Watching him from the press gallery as he prepared to face Johnson today, I noticed for the first time he actually looked nervous. 

Although Starmer asked some pointed questions about the ministerial confusion over travel, he failed to hit the target because his own party policy seemed unclear. More importantly, a really confident Labour leader would have nailed the PM’s feet to the floor with the resignation of NHS nurse Jenny McGee.

The very nurse who cared for Johnson in intensive care had quit because she felt her profession was not given enough respect or a real pay rise. When Andy Slaughter raised the issue later, Johnson’s jaw-droppingly lame reply (the government had asked for “an increase in pay for nurses”) would have been much more damaging if Starmer had asked the question.

Instead, the leader of the Opposition had ploughed on with prosecutorial, building-the-case, step-by-step questions about travel policy. One insider told me recently that once Covid restrictions loosened and Labour MPs could crowd the chamber, Starmer could get a huge confidence boost from the cheers behind him. Yet in this PMQs, there was tumbleweed after each question.

Johnson didn’t fail to show his own bloodlust, however, jibing his opponent to use “what authority he possesses” to back the government. The iron rule of PMQs, that there’s no prohibition on kicking a man when he’s down, was brutally observed.

As Starmer walked out of the chamber alongside Angela Rayner later, he looked a slightly shrunken figure. Whether that was down to Rayner’s higher heels or his continued goal drought, he’s going to have to start scoring again. The question is how long his own confidence interval lasts.