It’s been a few weeks since Boris Johnson jibed Keir Starmer with his alliterative soundbite of choice: “we vaccinate, they vacillate!” And given the past week of wibbly-wobbly, hokey-cokey pronouncements from him and his government, it’s perhaps fitting that the PM has laid off that particular attack line.
In a dizzying few days of dithering, Johnson exempted himself from isolation rules then isolated himself, his ministers contradicted him on the need to obey Covid ‘pings’ and key policy on critical workers changed by the hour.
The National Insurance rise to pay for social care was on and then off. The NHS pay rise was off and then on. Compulsory Covid passports were revived from the dead, just weeks after being quietly euthanised by Michael Gove.
At times, the PM looked like Gromit desperately trying to lay new track in front of his train of state as it sped towards the parliamentary recess. But although getting over the line of the summer break may stop backbenchers from gathering in grumbly groups in the Commons tea room, ministers know there are gruelling weeks ahead.
At the heart of the problem lies a fundamental confusion in Johnson’s pandemic strategy. He (backed by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, to be fair) has decided England will become the first country in the world to open up a country from lockdown precisely at the point when cases are soaring.
But instead of honestly admitting that his objective is a form of herd immunity - ie “hybrid immunity” stemming from infections and vaccinations - the PM is telling the public to be cautious and “slowly” take full advantage of all the freedoms he has now granted.
There’s an easy answer to the “if not now, when?” question about full unlocking: mid-September, when all of the adult population has been offered a second jab. The PM counters that keeping restrictions in place until then would simply delay the covid wave, not suppress it. And a wave in summer is easier for the NHS to cope with than a wave in winter, he adds.
Yet on that logic, being cautious and not “tearing the pants out of it” simply delays the wave too. Isolating after “ping” from the App delays the wave. Wearing masks delays the wave. Meeting outdoors delays the wave. But the PM says he doesn’t want to delay it. It’s hard to think of a more confused and chaotic public health policy, especially during a pandemic.
It would be more honest if Johnson admitted he wants the maximum number of infections this summer, just short of tipping the NHS into a serious crisis. And helpful if the department of health told us just what level of infections it thinks the NHS can cope with before lurching into that meltdown.
The other objective for opening up fully is to help ease the pain of businesses and all those who work in them. But if you’re then effectively telling the public not to use those businesses, because they should be “careful”, what is the point? That’s why, whenever Johnson was asked to define what tearing the pants out of it meant, he struggled with specifics.
It’s possible that the real, unstated reason for Freedom Day was not just “hybrid immunity”, but because ministers can see that young people simply aren’t going to be double jabbed in big numbers by mid-September anyway. Take-up rates are worryingly lower than older age groups, so if government waits for the magic 80% double-jabbed figure, it could be waiting indefinitely.
I suspect that’s what really lies behind Johnson’s drive for compulsory Covid passports. They will drive up jab rates, while giving attendees of nightclubs, football matches, music gigs (and cinema and theatre goers, and maybe indoor pub goers?) the security that they will be mixing with similarly protected people. Compulsion will also drive demand for booster jabs over the winter.
The big issue however over coming weeks will be just when restrictions are reintroduced. Johnson has already tried to soften up opinion this week by saying he merely “hoped” his roadmap would be “irreversible”.
Would it make sense to have a roadmap back into lockdown, just as he had one out of lockdown? I used to think so, as it would allow individuals and businesses to plan their next steps.
But the problem may fundamentally be that the virus doesn’t respond to graduated steps. If you really want to flatten (not delay) a sombrero of cases, a hard and fast lockdown may be the only answer. Just reimposing masks and working from home may not cut it.
Yet given how confused and contradictory the current policy is, it wouldn’t be surprising if the policy that replaces it is similarly incoherent. Learning to “live with Covid” is obviously where we need to end up, but that requires maximum vaccinations for genuine herd immunity. It also requires more honesty from government about what its real strategy is.
The latest data on Friday suggests the third wave may, just, be peaking. But I’ve genuinely no idea if that’s what No.10 wants, or if it wants to ride the wave for a few more weeks.
Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam this week repeated his advice to avoid places with the ‘3 Cs’ overlapping: closed settings, with crowds and close contacts. Unfortunately, the real ‘3 Cs’ that have defined Johnson’s policy are chaos, confusion and contradiction.