POLITICS
08/12/2020 23:11 GMT | Updated 09/12/2020 08:59 GMT

V-Day Was Great, But Matt Hancock Needs Lots Of D-Days To Win The Covid Battle

Vaccination vindication for health secretary, yet rising cases shows distancing still matters most.

You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.

For some Britons, our constant cultural references to the second world war are tiresomely obsessive. And when Matt Hancock hailed the start of the UK’s historic Covid vaccination programme as “V-Day”, the Twitterati scepticism wasn’t hard to find.

Yet for the over-80s, the generation who actually remember the war from real life rather than the movies, invoking that 1945 mix of relief and celebration may have had real resonance. Even in this super-cynical age, the footage of Margaret Keenan (90), William Shakespeare (81), or Martin Kenyon (91) doing their duty and calmly getting their jabs was a truly moving sight.

After hearing Mr Shakespeare praise the NHS staff who administered the vaccine, Hancock himself was certainly moved to tears. For the health secretary and his allies, the moment wasn’t just a triumph of global scientific progress, it was a vindication of his dogged belief that it was worth going early down the vaccine route even as others doubted that strategy.

Indeed, just seven weeks ago, the knives were out for Hancock among some in No.10 who felt his optimism was wearing thin. His allies tell me they recall this specific quote from one “Whitehall source”: “Matt Hancock is the only person here who thinks there is actually going to be a vaccine...it’s a running joke with other departments.”‌

Back in April, his pledge to test 100,000 people a day was dubbed “arbitrary” and “irrational” by Downing Street sources who felt the target would “come back and bite him”. In August, when he warned that a second wave was “a very serious threat” (presciently as it turned out) and further lockdowns may be needed, he was again slapped down by some in No.10.

Some suspect the now departed duo of Cummings and Cain were behind the vitriol, which seems to have abated since they left the building. Still, maybe they were only their master’s voice, given that the PM himself was more focused on the “moonshot” of mass testing and drug treatments as a way out of the pandemic, rather than a vaccine breakthrough. Valid questions remain too about Hancock’s handling of ‘NHS Test and Trace’, at least the trace bit.‌

Still, when Hancock cited the more famous Shakespeare in the Commons today – “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” – he could have been referring not just to Covid jabs but to his own treatment by those on his own side these past nine months.‌

The health secretary was at pains today to repeatedly stress that for all the good news on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rollout beginning, it would be spring at the earliest before restrictions could start to be seriously lifted across the country. Once most of the most vulnerable 25m had had the jab, “we can rely on people’s personal responsibility to protect themselves rather than the current rules that we have in place”, he said. He had already booked his holiday in Cornwall for next summer, he said.

But Hancock was also clear about his nagging worries in the here and now. “I’ve still got this worry we can’t blow it now,” he said, pointing to signs that the virus was growing again in London and parts of Essex and Kent. It’s certainly true that case numbers nationally have stopped falling, thanks to some regional drivers.

While the north west and north east now look good bets to come out of Tier 3 curbs next week, the capital may swap places with them. In Wales too, the virus looks again to be scarily on the march, perhaps confirming that its short “firebreak” was followed by widespread arson. Give some of the public an inch and they take several miles, it seems. Like the north of England, Scotland seems to have had success with very tough restrictions, but all our politicians must worry that only the most extreme curbs seem to work.

The spike in London and south East cases seems to have started even during the second lockdown. Was that down to restriction fatigue, or confusion about the rules or both? With a five-day incubation period, it may be that some of today’s cases result from the reopening of retail and hospitality last week.

Either way, high profile cases of Kay Burley and Rita Ora are probably typical of the way some people in London are simply ignoring the ban on household mixing in bars, restaurants and at home. Given the potential of Tier 1 light curbs to let the virus let rip again and given its spread across borough boundaries, there may be quite a few disappointed Tory MPs on that December 16 review date.

Add in the fact that we are going to see further relaxation for “Christmas bubbles” and you can see why Hancock is worried. The threat of a New Year third wave is now very real indeed. I suspect Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, who are due before the Commons joint health and science committee tomorrow, will have to issue a fresh blood-curdling warning to the public to follow the rules. Be more like the jabtastic Margaret, William and Martin, each of whom has made big social sacrifices this year and still patiently plan for 2021.

V-Day has come and gone, but the country needs a lot more D-Days, where the D is for distancing. And staying apart remains the safest, simplest antidote to this virus for most people this winter. If they don’t, then there must be real fears that in January the return of schools will prompt more outbreaks (with possible cancellation of exams), hospitals will near breaking point and businesses will face yet another job-destroying cycle of lockdown-release-lockdown.