You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.
As the fireworks of leadership challenges go, it felt more like a damp sparkler than a Catherine Wheel. Self-styled “Brexit hardman” Steve Baker’s threat to Boris Johnson – over the Covid lockdown’s infringements on liberty – fizzled out in less than 90 minutes.
That’s how long it took between the publication of the Sun’s scoop on Baker’s blood-curdling messages (urging fellow MPs to warn the chief whip about “the PM’s leadership”) and his swift retreat on Twitter (“Boris is the only person to lead us out of these difficulties and I support him in that endeavour”).
It’s fair to say not many Conservatives rallied to the Baker flag, with several texting each other to suggest he was not so much a hardman as a madman. As my colleague Arj Singh reports, backbenchers variously described the former Brexit minister’s move as both “self-indulgent” “tosh” and “impotent, inexplicable rage”.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a group of Tory MPs who share Baker’s worries about the current restrictions. More precisely, it’s not the lockdown itself but its indefinite timetable that is their real concern. And given the statements of several scientists over the past 24 hours, they fear that timetable is not just vague but now stretches further into the distance.
Jonathan Van Tam’s suggestion that it would be “late spring” before restrictions could be lifted was one trigger. With the PM having made mid-February his target for the four most vulnerable groups to be vaccinated, Covid Recovery Group chair Mark Harper warned earlier this week he didn’t want full lockdown a single moment longer than March 8, after the vaccines would be fully effective.
But Public Health England’s Susan Hopkins today said that even if all went well “I still think that we are going to have a difficult time at least until Easter”, ie April. Professor Neil Ferguson (who don’t forget still sits on advisory groups) also had an ominous warning on the Today programme, stating that if the vaccination of the four groups was only 70% “we could still get a very large epidemic which could kill a large number of people”.
Ferguson’s point was that the scientific advice was likely to be therefore that a relaxation of restrictions “will be a gradual process to the autumn”. That may sound too long for some Conservative MPs but in fact it’s the kind of language that Matt Hancock has also been using. When the health secretary said he’s looking forward to “a great British summer”, he was implying it would take at least until then for even domestic holidays to be viable.
Moreover, the vaccination programme rollout may be vague for those under 50, but one thing we know is that with teachers, police and others likely to be given priority, it could take many months for an average fortysomething or thirtysomething to get the jab.
And with the prospect of a need for annual vaccinations (just like flu), the whole cycle could well start again next October (just like the flu jab) and extend into spring 2022. In fact many in the NHS, as well as business, are planning on the basis that it will be next year before things really return to “normal”.
I wouldn’t bet against Hancock and the PM hitting their target of mid-February for the completion of the first wave of vaccinations. In some London hospitals well over 95% of staff have now had the jab, which is an incredible achievement, and if the AstraZeneca vaccine comes on stream there will be a real ramp up in GPs surgeries, care homes and pharmacies.
That’s why Baker’s leaked message to fellow MPs was actually timely, in that it alerted everyone to the huge political fight that is looming once the February target is reached. The kind of restrictions that Johnson may dare lift at that point may be marginal, and Easter may be the earliest there is a substantial change.
Schools may return gradually, perhaps only if they have daily testing regimes in place. There was also a reason furlough was extended to cover the whole of April: fear that it could take that long to really take back control of the virus. No one should be complacent about the possibility of a fourth wave either, even though with vaccinations it would have less impact.
The virulence of the new variant, leaving fit younger people in intensive care, may end up being a factor too. Yes, vaccination of the over-60s radically reduces the chance of deaths, but the threat of going into hospital is no longer abstract, and neither is coping with the after effects of long Covid. The under-50s may be more cautious about removing restrictions than some think.
One other interesting question is just what kind of longer-term changes the British public may put up with. The only public display of tension between the PM and Van Tam in this whole pandemic came when the deputy chief medical officers suggested in December that long-term mask-wearing and hand-sanitising “maybe a good thing”.
The PM’s semi-reprimand – “on the other hand, we may want to get back to life as pretty much as close to normal” – hinted at possible fresh difficulties this spring. After those pre-Christmas warnings about the third wave were not fully heeded, it’s any similar differences of opinion between Johnson and his scientists that would catch the public’s attention rather than a Tory lockdown sceptic rebellion.
If asked who scares them most, Jonathan Van Tam or Steve Baker, I suspect most people would say it’s the “Covid hardman” who wins every time. If the PM is told by medical advisers that the NHS, exhausted and pushed to the brink as it has been by this third wave, needs the reassurance of tight restrictions until May, he may have no choice but to listen.