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So, one thing is now clear at least: Boris Johnson will win his Commons vote on Tuesday and England will move out of its second national lockdown and into his new system of “tough tiers”. Keir Starmer’s decision not to oppose the regulations means that Tory rebels will simply lack the numbers to defeat their government.
Starmer’s order to his own troops to abstain is based on the take-it-or-leave-it nature of the Covid regulation: if MPs vote them down, there will be no restrictions at all. Instead, the Labour leader wants to register his protest at the lack of financial help for firms still closed and for those forced to self isolate.
But while Johnson’s margin of victory may appear comfortable (with 364 Conservative MPs in total, the PM can now cope with even a rebellion of 100 of them), the politics certainly won’t be. Plenty of Tory MPs in shire seats will vote loyally with their government, while sharing the anger of some of their local residents and businesses that they are being harshly treated.
For the rebels, their mood has been hardened by the new “economic impact assessment” published just a day before the vote. Many felt it was a rushed rehash of bits of the Office for Budget Responsibility documents of last week. It wasn’t a dodgy dossier as such, but some Tory MPs felt it was an insult to their intelligence to dress up a lack of analysis as, well, “analysis”.
Yet it’s not just a lack of transparency over the economic stats that worries many MPs. The absence of details on even some health impacts is also a concern. And nowhere was that more apparent than with Matt Hancock’s stance on rolling out “community testing” as a route out of the Tier 3 restrictions that so many Tories are upset about.
At the No.10 briefing, the health secretary said this: “In Liverpool where over 300,000 people, both those with symptoms and those without, where that testing has happened, they’ve managed to bring case rates down by over three quarters.” Hancock came very close to saying community testing was the cause of Liverpool’s success, even though there has been no evaluation of the project, and even though a lag in the system means it’s right now too early to tell definitively.
As former Army chief General Gordon Messenger pointed out, “community testing” is now preferred to the phrase “mass testing”. And there are many public health chiefs who think mass testing is a real waste of time and valuable resources. They prefer regular, repeat testing to be used on specific groups and settings, from schools (where pupils and staff can benefit) to higher risk workplaces like meat processing plants.
Messenger was also honest enough to say what No.10 has seemed reluctant to admit, namely that it’s physically impossible to repeat Liverpool’s 2,000 troop deployment for every Tier 3 area. And he was cautious about how quickly things could happen, saying community testing help would “sequence over time and into January and beyond”. That just underlined there are few quick short cuts out of Tier 3.
Dido Harding revealed last week that the overwhelming bulk of the extra £7bn spent on test and trace is going on testing, not tracing. While rapid testing is money well spent to keep hospitals, care homes, universities and schools still functioning, some councils think it won’t be well spent if the money also goes on the “worried well” who just want to check they don’t have the virus.
Yet for a government that prefers to use carrots rather than sticks, the rapid tests have that most tantalising “moonshot” possibility of all: creating some kind of Covid-free “passport” to allow people to live as normal a life as possible.
Tonight’s government “prospectus” (Section 2.42, page 13) actually says work is underway to allow individuals who have two negative test results to have Tier 2-style freedoms (visiting friends in groups of six outdoors, going to pubs and restaurants, football matches) even in Tier 3 areas “for a time limited period”.
Whether that hope proves to be more looney tunes than lunar discovery remains to be seen. There will be all sorts of issues with possible validation of such “passports” (how do you prove your negative home test was your own? – how do you avoid forgeries? – how can a pub or restaurant feasibly open in the hope of just getting passport holders as customers?). But along with the idea of using the NHS app prove you’ve had a vaccination, ministers clearly think the idea could work.
Crucially, it all comes down to the art of persuasion. Persuading people to get vaccines or tests, through incentives, could prove more effective than compulsion. Hancock told me last year, long before Covid broke out in China, that there was a “strong argument” for effectively making all vaccinations a precondition of a child attending a state school. Right now, he has to agree with his boss that mandating vaccination is not the best policy.
But first the PM needs to use his powers of persuasion on his own MPs. And here, some more hard cash may help. Johnson said tonight “we will do everything we can” to help the hospitality sector, which many predict will be crippled by a long Tier 3 winter. If he puts meat on those bones tomorrow or in coming weeks, that will prove a more immediately earthly attraction than any longshot moonshot.