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As pre-cooked soundbites go, Boris Johnson’s PMQs line wasn’t exactly a classic. “We’re pro-vaxx, we’re low tax and when it comes to defence we’ve got your back,” he declared as he eyeballed Keir Starmer. It didn’t quite scan, and more importantly – given planned rises in corporation tax and cuts to the Army – only a third of it (the vaccine bit) tallied with recent government policy.
Determined to rebuild Labour’s reputation on security, Starmer had zeroed in on the Army cuts to highlight just how the PM had broken yet another pledge to voters. I was there in that conference hall in Telford for the 2019 Tory manifesto launch and remember well Johnson snorting with derision at Tom Newton-Dunn’s suggestion that cuts looked suspiciously likely. “We will not be cutting our Armed Forces in any form,” he had told The Sun.
As the PM’s new soundbite on Wednesday showed, however, he’s nothing if not brazen when confronted with his past promises. When he appeared before the liaison committee a few hours later, his only regret appeared to be the lack of more Tory backbenchers to cheer on his jibes at Starmer. “I want to see the chamber back,” he said, with an eye to ending social distancing and the return of that wall of sound that emanates on PMQs day.
Still, following his session before senior MPs, it was clear that some Tory backbenchers are upset that their prime minister has swallowed too much scientific and medical caution on the virus. His suggestion that pubs could close their doors to those without vaccine passports was greeted with dismay by Steve Baker and others. “Papers for the pub”, Baker said, was not exactly the British way.
In fact, as No.10 scrambled to make clear soon afterwards, the PM believes both vaccination and testing could be the key to greater freedoms this summer, not just for pubs but other venues. Johnson has long believed that mass testing is the key to unlocking the nation, and a negative Covid test would be as valid as a vaccination record for some services. “Do the text-n-vaxx to put the freshness back” (you can have that for free, No.10) would certainly be catchier than his PMQs effort.
When Michael Gove’s review of “Covid-status certification” concludes, it may well have a mix of three different components, each of which could count as a green light for freedoms: a record of a jab, a recent negative test or an antibody test to prove the level of protection.
What was surprising though was just how far Johnson has come on the question of vaccinations. On February 15, he told SkyNews: “What I don’t think we will have in this country is – as it were – vaccination passports to allow you to go to, say, the pub or something like that.” Today, he also gave a very strong hint that care home providers would be legally allowed to insist new staff had been jabbed.
Like his pledge on armed forces cuts, was the dangerous liaison committee revelation on “pub passports” just a case of another day, another U-turn? Well, actually, it felt like something more interesting about Johnson’s psyche. His most fascinating line on vaccinations (for care home staff or for the boozer) was when he said: “My impression is there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this.” No.10 has been struck by just how consistently the public back tough restrictions to keep a lid on Covid.
The PM’s words seem to echo Tony Blair, who has said health (ie both vaccine and testing records) passports as “inevitable”. He told me in February it would be the public, not governments, that push for this kind of reassurance. “It’s unlikely people will want to go to large events, unless they think they’re going to be mixing with people who at least have given some sort of proof of their status,” he had said.
Test-and-vaxx could also be the template for keeping out the worrying South African variants too. Especially if Johnson follows through on his hint to Yvette Cooper (she’s having a good war isn’t she?) that hauliers coming from France may have to be tested on entry. Given the fears about importation of that variant among Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam, plus Labour’s pushing hard for stricter controls, that felt like one PMQs victory for Starmer that got away.
One thing seems for sure: that one week fast-tracking of the global travel taskforce (which Johnson said was reporting on April 5 now, not April 12) won’t herald a dramatic reopening of visits abroad. The risk of a vaccine-resistant strain from France undoing all the good work of the UK vaccine rollout seems just too high for a PM whose popularity has been buoyed by the jabs army. Limited travel looks more likely, but don’t put your money on a foreign hol until August at the earliest.