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Could it be magic, now?
When he spoke in the Commons today, the usually cautious Tobias Ellwood spoke for many of his party when he demanded the 2m social distancing guidance to be changed quickly to help the economy. “One metre is the right decision, now is the right time – not in two weeks.”
Dominic Raab was more circumspect in his No.10 press conference, but made plain that this would be ultimately a political judgement call, rather than the appliance of science. “There’s no magic to one or other particular measure, there will be different levels of risk whether it’s at two metres, one-and-a-half metres or one metre,” the foreign secretary told us.
Magical thinking (ah, remember that?) or not, the reason Tory backbenchers are pressing so hard on this issue is they want to throw the UK hospitality industry a lifeline out of the pandemic. And they were depressed by ministers’ suggestions that the issue won’t be solved for several weeks, after the July 4 reopening timetable set out in the PM’s roadmap.
Well, we know Boris Johnson is taking this seriously for several reasons, and not just because he and his father Stanley think it’s the natural born right of every Englishman to go to the pub. The main clue is that the PM has ordered a review.
Of course, the default of this government in the pandemic is to say that most things are ‘under review’ (a lame non-answer), ‘under constant review’ (a notch higher) or even ‘under active review’ (another level still). But the 2m guidance is now subject to a “comprehensive review”, which basically means it’s a question of when not if this change will happen.
The other clue came when No.10 told us that the comprehensive review was being chaired by Simon Case, the newly-installed permanent secretary in Downing Street. Case is an ex principal private secretary to David Cameron and Theresa May, a strategy director at GCHQ and head of the Cabinet Office Implementation Unit.
Crucially, the review will draw on evidence from across the world, and not just from scientists and medical experts but also economists, the PM’s spokesman said. And then its work goes before the Covid Strategy Committee chaired by the PM. The chain of responsibility is clear: the final call will be by the politicians.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty was seen as a major stumbling block to any shift from 2m, not least as he said on June 3 that the current distance guidance was “going to carry on really for as long as this epidemic continues”. Today, the PM’s spokesman said a blanket refusal “wasn’t how I interpreted those comments”. He preferred to point us to chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s new line that 2m is “not a scientific rule – it is a risk-based assessment on when risk reduces”.
And yet, as Raab reminded us today, “there is a risk of a second spike if we’re not very careful”, singling out the need to build up the test and trace regime. This was underlined by WHO’s Europe director Dr Hans Kluge, as well as Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford.
Bell told the Lords science and technology committee: “I would be very surprised if we avoided the second wave.” He added that the real question was whether we will see a number of localised outbreaks and then a nationwide second wave, or a second wave all on its own. No.10’s entire strategy seems to be based only on local outbreaks, so the spectre of a national second wave may spook some of them.
Politically, a second national wave would surely lead to calls for Johnson to resign. And the truth is that when he keeps saying we all need to wait and reserve judgement on his handling of the pandemic, what he perhaps really means is let’s get through next winter first. His critics may not need a detailed public inquiry to determine his fate if there is a second spike in deaths that he could have prevented.
And yet it’s possible that even under these circumstances, if there are new spikes in other countries, Johnson could try to cling on, blaming global conditions. A YouGov poll last week found that only 26% of Brits would blame the government if there was a second wave, 33% would blame ‘the public’ for not following guidance, 33% would blame both the government and their fellow Brits. Just 7% of Tory voters would blame the government alone.
With Rishi Sunak pushing hard for the 2m rule to be reviewed, it’s possible that even he could get just as much blame for the gung-ho unlockdown, making all the talk of him being an ‘oven ready’ replacement PM sound hollow (Sunak will this autumn also be taking money away from people as opposed to spraying cash around).
That’s why some Tory MPs won’t rule out Johnson magically surviving a second wave, even if his countrymen and women literally don’t. But others think ducking such responsibility would be a sleight of hand too far, even for this political Houdini.
Quote Of The Day
“He is the very best of Britain. Our country needs more people like him.”
Priti Patel praises Patrick Hutchinson, the BLM protestor who carried an injured man out of danger
Monday Cheat Sheet
The Home Secretary told MPs the government was looking urgently at a new desecration of war memorials bill. She revealed that in all protests since the death of George Floyd, at least 100 officers have now been injured, as well as three police horses and one police dog, and at least 280 arrests have been made.
Downing Street said that the new commission into race and ethnic minority inequality would report by the end of the year. It would also “look a wider inequalities including issues facing working class white boys in schools”. Tory MP Nus Ghani said “we have the data on obstacles, prejudice and inequalities...we just need to crack on with real practical solutions”.
Boris Johnson will reply personally to England footballer Marcus Rashford’s call for free school meal vouchers to be extended this summer, No.10 announced. But his plea looks like falling on deaf ears so far. The DfE even had to correct a blog claiming no precedent for a U-turn.
Just six weeks after taking over as Labour leader, Keir Starmer has drawn level with Boris Johnson on YouGov’s ‘best prime minister’ question (33% each). The Tories still hold a decent lead over Labour by 45% to 37% but Labour has narrowed the gap from 10 points last month to 8 points this month.\
The UK and EU issued a joint statement agreeing “new momentum was required” in their post-Brexit deal talks. Johnson said “We see no reason why you shouldn’t get [it] done in July”.
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