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It’s fair to say Boris Johnson is not a great time keeper. Whether it was filing his Daily Telegraph column, attending ministerial meetings or turning up for PMQs, he has a reputation for being unpunctual. (Former Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes had a similar affliction and was dubbed “the late Simon Hughes” by even his pals. But for now the PM is very much alive and kicking).
So when he arrived for his 5pm No.10 press briefing, naturally a few minutes behind schedule, it clearly alarmed some that he plunged straight into the deadline business. No sooner had he announced plans to start reopening schools from March 8 than the instant questions were all about what if he missed the target.
In many ways, setting a date for pupils’ full return is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem for him right now. Refuse to set a date and you’re accused of leaving millions of pupils, parents and teachers in limbo. Set a date and you risk being accused of imposing an arbitrary timetable, and, even worse, inviting a whole world of pain if you somehow don’t stick to it. He inserted plenty of caveats, yet many parents will only hear the date itself and plan accordingly.
That the PM opted to be bold enough with a specific date perhaps says more about his need to keep his Tory MPs happy. More than a fortnight ago, Mark Harper, the chair of the Covid Recovery Group of backbenchers, was the first to come up with the March 8 date. After a back-of-the-envelope calculation about the three week protection lag for over-70s vaccinated by February 15, Harper warned that there would be no rationale for keeping severe restrictions in place “a second longer”.
Even though any threat to his leadership may feel currently laughable, as a classicist Johnson will be more aware than most that the Ides of March will be just seven days after his schools return date. And that infamous point in the Roman calendar was not just about back-stabbing murder, it was also a traditional date to settle any outstanding debts. The PM may feel he owes it to his largely loyal troops to at least show he’s begun a process of unlockdown.
Still, as he stressed, March 8 is “the earliest” date he has in his diary for schools’ return. As he told backbencher Steve Brine: “This is about as fast as we can prudently go.” And when he said “we hope it will be safe to begin the reopening”, the word “begin” was doing a lot of heavy lifting. Would we get a phased return with primaries back first, or exam years in secondaries? Will there be regional differences, based on prevalence locally? It’s not yet clear. Note that it’s a “hope” not a promise. And note further that Gavin Williamson wasn’t trusted with the announcement today.
Johnson also gave us another key date for all our diaries: February 22, when a wider “roadmap” will be published on the easing of restrictions for other areas of public life and the economy. This is likely to be the moment that the hardcore of lockdown sceptics (a smaller group than those who desperately want pupils back in the classroom) erupt, if they are in anyway unhappy with the timings.
With some scientists already warning that it won’t be safe enough for the hospitality industry to return until May, some of those backbenchers may see their impatience boil over. If that timetable is right, there will be huge pressure on the chancellor to offer sectoral support. I wouldn’t rule out a further extension of furlough from April for another month. After all, with May’s elections looming, would ministers really want mass redundancy notices arriving a few weeks beforehand?
It seemed obvious today that caution will be the PM’s watchword and his determination to make this the last lockdown, as well as that tentative March date, suggests it will be Easter before even schools fully open. Add three weeks for the over-50s to be fully protected from their vaccines and that May idea looks plausible for the real loosening to start in the economy. The question is whether No.10 wants to be candid that it could take that long.
If the vaccine programme keeps to schedule in a way that the PM himself never has, and if infections, cases and deaths fall as hoped, this summer could indeed see a much-needed boost for national morale as well as the economy. For once, Johnson’s summer sunlit uplands are within reach, as long as his MPs are prepared for a wet and windy spring.