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“Summertime...and the livin’ is easements/Fysh is jumpin’...and the Commons is high.”
Boris Johnson is no crooner, but that’s the kind of unlockdown lullaby many Tory backbenchers want him to sing to them this summer. Under their best case scenario, an easing of Covid restrictions would have started in earnest this spring, and by June the nation would see a sharp economic bounceback and a longed-for return of a feelgood factor.
Right now, with our hospitals still packed with patients, that sunlit upland may seem some way off. But the need to at least start the process soon, in order to reap the benefits this summer (when talk of demand/growth lags finally replaces talk of case/hospitalisations lags) is something several senior Conservative MPs are urgently pushing for.
The Treasury played down a Daily Telegraph report that the chancellor (or at least his allies) believed scientists were “moving the goalposts” in the roadmap out of lockdown, by focusing on cases rather than just deaths and pressure on the NHS. Still, not for the first time in this pandemic, Rishi Sunak won’t have been unhappy at being hailed as a hero by backbenchers.
Steve Baker, deputy chair of the Coronavirus Research Group (CRG), said the whispers proved Sunak was “potentially our best chancellor ever”. Marcus Fysh (you didn’t think I misspelled my Summertime lyric did you?), who voted against lockdown in November, agreed. He added that once the most vulnerable were protected, “we must open the economy completely and return to normal”. Those “easements”, that awful No.10 phrase for loosening restrictions, are the signposts on the roadmap out of the pandemic.
A clearly chastened PM has been unrelentingly cautious about all this since the year started. His desire to ensure this is the final national lockdown is driven by the medical and scientific warnings of how precarious the situation will remain even into March. The mutant strains look unnerving, as is the likelihood they are already much more widespread than recorded.
Yet in being so cautious, Johnson has bought himself some political capital to perhaps pull off some surprises this spring. Maybe he will allow more outdoor mixing (going from one-to-one to previous groups of six will feel like huge relief for many) the week after the schools fully reopen? Any changes will be welcomed, even if small and incremental rather than some major big bang, such is the public’s belief in putting health first.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Sage, said the country could be “more or less back to normal for the summer” once the most vulnerable were vaccinated. No.10 was asked today when the over-50s were likely to be fully protected, a spokesman said “by the end of spring”. When asked what the end of spring meant, he replied “it means the end of spring”. Brexit meant Brexit, Crexit [Corona-exit] means Crexit, a moveable feast.
Thankfully, NHS chief Simon Stevens was more candid, saying the aim was to vaccinate all over-50s by the end of April. That may disappoint some Tory lockdown sceptics who had hoped spring would be over by Easter (heck “British Summer Time” starts on March 28 after all). Yet it would fit with the overall plan to start reopening restaurants, pubs and hotels in May. Even the CRG will be happy if most reopening happens by “the end of May”.
The cautious approach is paying off with the voters. Yesterday saw another poll give a “vaccine bounce” to his party and there’s no question the absolutely jabulous rollout is proving one of the most popular policies Johnson has implemented since becoming PM. Listening to the Vaxx Populi is enough to cheer any Tory soul. Having clawed that goodwill back, he won’t want to squander it again by getting the health/economy balance wrong.
Hovering above everything No.10 does right now is the deep fear of putting the public through a fourth national lockdown prompted by a fourth wave. Such a disaster would probably snap for good the elastic patience shown so far by a country that has put up with incompetence, bad luck and misplaced optimism. It would cost Johnson and Sunk votes and jobs. Most important of all, however, it would cost yet more in lives.