How Easter Became The New Christmas In Boris Johnson’s Covid Calendar

PM shifts his timelines, but will his billions on test and trace pay off?

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Way back in July, Boris Johnson was as bright and breezy as an English summer’s day when he set out his Covid “unlockdown” plans. The PM famously talked of a “significant return to normality” by Christmas. Indeed, some of us remember he even ventured this dreamlike state could happen “from November” (as the more observant of you will have noticed, that’s now).‌

Today, at his latest No.10 briefing, Johnson said: “I can’t say that Christmas will be normal this year…” Appearing to deploy what he calls “the blessed sponge of amnesia” to himself and the public, his July pronouncements were forgotten. Instead, he offered another key date in the Christian calendar as a new beacon of hope. Yes, we “should be able to inoculate the vast majority of people who need the most protection by Easter”, he said.

The tentative Oxford/AstraZeneca trial results were certainly another welcome boost to the world’s hopes of combatting this awful virus. But although his advisers clearly try to get him to temper his enthusiasm with various scientific caveats, the PM couldn’t help himself earlier in the day. In fact, not long before his televised address, he sounded even more categoric as he declared the way out of the UK’s coronavirus pandemic.‌

Speaking at the fag end of a long Commons session, Johnson was asked bluntly by the SNP’s Carol Monaghan whether he had “an exit strategy” or was just winging it again with his new Christmas relaxation plan. He replied that he would use “tough tiering”, mass testing and a roll-out of the vaccine to keep the virus down.

Johnson then added: “We must push it down further until such time as we are able to say that all those who are vulnerable have been vaccinated and we can move forward and go back completely to normal.” Yes, you read that right “back completely to normal”. And he went yet further: “That terminus, that end date, looks like being Easter.” So, we will all be back to normal by Easter. He got so carried away, it’s a surprise he didn’t refer to his new coronavirus exit date as ‘Crexit’ (you can have that one for free, prime minister).‌

It took Chris Whitty to add a Grinch-like counterpoint to Johnson’s ho-ho-homilies of optimism. When I asked him if Sage had modelled the increase in Covid cases (and deaths) that a festive relaxation would trigger, the chief medical officer warned it “is going to come at a risk”. And it all depended on whether the public would “go wild”, before, during and after Christmas.

That sense of concern at the high stakes being played here had been underlined by Keir Starmer earlier. He too referred to risk, saying the government’s move out of national lockdown into a regionalised approach was “risky... because the previous three-tier system didn’t work”. Starmer didn’t quite say he wouldn’t vote against the plans but he was putting down a marker in case it all goes wrong.

The good news, as well as the Oxford vaccine data, was that Monday’s case numbers in the UK fell to their lowest for six weeks. If they keep falling, the regulations on the tier system will get a much smoother passage through parliament next week. In particular, the alarming rise in cases in the South East (Swale in Kent rocketed this last week) will boost the case for why a national lockdown was needed, rather than just the strict Tier 3.

But the other risky business embarked on involved NHS Test and Trace. Back in July, the PM’s bold summer plan declared: “Over the coming months we will continue to build the NHS Test and Trace service into a world-class operation in infection control.” Those words sound pretty overblown this winter, yet there was a massive injection of cash from the PM today. Its extra £7bn takes it to £22bn this financial year – equivalent to nearly a fifth of the entire NHS budget (£129bn). When Rishi Sunak announces spending squeezes on Wednesday, remember that £22bn figure.‌

The PM couldn’t tell me how this new money would be divided up between testing and tracing, or whether the tracing cash would go to more local public health staff rather than private firms like Serco. Although mass, rapid testing will be money well spent if it persuades more people to isolate, the system needs to actually reach many more contacts of people with Covid in the first place. And the PM doesn’t have until Easter to sort that out.


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