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When Tony Blair was prime minister, Alistair Campbell used to compile a personal collection of newspaper headlines lamenting “Blair’s worst week ever”. It was a reminder not just of media hype but also that every week could be your worst week without an ability to step back and see the bigger picture.
Despite the loss of his communications chief Lee Cain and the defenestration of his chief adviser Dominic Cummings (seen exiting with No.10 tonight with a box of belongings), this week hasn’t been Boris Johnson’s worst in office. That description should be really applied to early April, when he was fighting for breath in St Thomas’s Hospital and a thousand people were dying every day at the peak of the first wave of the Covid pandemic.
Partly through accident, partly through design, the PM’s most significant week ahead is the final one of this month. On Monday November 23, Johnson is expected to update the Commons on the outcome of next week’s EU summit and the next steps for Brexit. If there’s no trade deal by then, Johnson is ready to spell out why the UK will still prosper.
On the Tuesday, the PM and Matt Hancock are expected to produce their plan for post-lockdown, giving clues as to what the country’s restrictions will look like over Christmas and into the New Year. With MPs given a few days to digest the plans, a vote may take place on the Thursday.
On Wednesday November 25, Rishi Sunak unveils his one-year spending review, a mini-Budget in all but name. Some spending departments are waiting nervously but I’m told there will be some things to cheer Tory MPs as they prepare for the winter ahead. Amid all the talk about a ‘reset’ for the government, the last week in November could be its moment.
And yet it is on Covid that there is still the most uncertainty. As I wrote last night, Chris Whitty and Stephen Powis have both suggested that there will not be a return to the same tiered system of restrictions that existed before the second lockdown. The PM won’t want to be made to look like a clown by announcing an extension, but he may have to announce tougher local measures.
Today, a November 4 paper from Sage modelling subgroup SPI-M-O was published and it predicted that tougher measures that the last tiers would be needed even after December 2, when the lockdown is due to end. “If England returns to the same application of the tiering system in place before 5 November, then transmission will return to the same rate of increase as today,” it said.
Just what the new system will look like remains unclear, but it may have to include a Scottish-style Tier 4 of even tougher curbs for some areas. The Welsh government’s own Sage equivalent, the technical advisory group (TAG), reported today new evidence that schools being open is associated with higher rates of Covid infection in the wider population. If proven, that may prompt Johnson to agree to masks in classrooms and maybe even rota systems for sixth forms in England.
Add to all that the latest Covid cases and the picture is no less gloomy. The new 27,301 further cases is the second highest daily figure on record, suggesting yesterday’s hike was not a blip. It also adds to other findings that suggest an uptick in cases stemmed from the last few days before the current lockdown started. Critics who said pre-announcing/leaking the lockdown will see this as proof that the public went out in big numbers in a last hurrah that did spread the virus.
The last week of November may be preceded by better news on case numbers. There may be a last-dtich Brexit deal to trumpet, and there will almost certainly be spending boost for some departments (while some less good news for others). But it’s going to be a damned close run thing on Covid.