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In his first press conference since recovering from Covid last year, Boris Johnson was back on characteristic form. “We’ve come under what could have been a vast peak, as though we’ve been going through some huge Alpine tunnel and we can now see the sunlight and the pasture ahead of us,” he said.
As well as displaying in technicolour that personal optimism bias, his words were an insight into the PM’s own concept of what a summer holiday looks like. They conjured up images of him twirling around on an Austrian hilltop and singing “The hills are alive, with the sound of Brexit!” Or to paraphrase William Hague, “we’re in Europe, just not run by Europe!”
Today, thoughts of holidays, even Brexiteer-with-a-blue-passport holidays, had a bucket of icy water thrown over them by none other than Matt Hancock. Asked several times for the interaction between his new hotel quarantine policy and the new variants of Covid, the health secretary was even more cautious than usual.
When backbencher Huw Merriman offered a simple choice between ending the quarantine curbs by May, when 99% of the most vulnerable would be vaccinated, or extending it until a tweaked vaccine was found in the autumn, Hancock signalled strongly the latter option. If the current vaccines can’t tackle the new variants in coming weeks, “we will need to vaccinate with a further booster jab in the autumn”, he replied.
Unsurprisingly, that caused the ears of lockdown sceptics to prick up (as well as millions of Britons hoping for a holiday). Covid Recovery Group chairman Mark Harper asked when the new policy was “going to end, if ever, because if the virus continues to mutate, surely the risk will be there forever?” Hancock doubled down. If the new variants proved resistant, he said, then “updated vaccines” will be required to protect against the “variants of concern”.
He didn’t say it, but Hancock is clearly worried that the AstraZeneca vaccine may have problems in tackling the “South African” variant of the virus (known as E484K). The hope is that by the autumn, the AZ vaccine will have been tweaked to cope, but that could take longer than some hope and it could be winter before we get a new version.
The good news is that right now the “Kent” variant is outstripping the E484K variant because it has a transmissible advantage. The bad news is that over time, the South African version may get the upper hand because it can defeat the current vaccine. The very bad news is that we don’t even need to “import” this variant as our home-grown version has shown it can mutate to the more vaccine-resistant version.
As if to ram home the point, today the government’s Nervtag advisory group formally classified the mutated “Kent” variant, first identified in Bristol, as a Variant of Concern (VOC). Tracer teams are popping up all over the country, and Lambeth became the latest area to see “surge testing”.
With no little irony, Hancock actually admitted in the Commons today that his scientists advise him that “there are, repeatedly and independently around the world, mutations of the same type in the E484K area of the virus”. Even with closed borders, there is an “enemy within” ready to cause havoc unless it is isolated very quickly and effectively.
Maybe ministers would be better deployed offering free hotel rooms to people in multigenerational households or other overcrowded homes who actually want more isolation support? There are, after all, many more hotels in town and city centres than airports.
As I said last night, a growing number of MPs are worried about the hotel quarantine policy and today’s details did little to ease those fears. The Institute for Government’s Sarah Nickson has a withering new report out today which lays bare some of the main flaws. In a nutshell, it seems too weak to stop the variants, too strong to save tourism and aviation jobs.
It’s worth pointing out that even if the “red list” hotel quarantine system was in place this summer, that may not affect Brits taking breaks to safer countries in Europe and elsewhere. Yet it may be difficult for the two systems to co-exist in parallel, unless airports are sorted into strictly segregated arrivals, departures and security areas to cater for “red” and “non-red” passengers.
The big question is whether Boris Johnson shares Hancock’s “precautionary principle” philosophy enough to really stick with his travel quarantine plans through the year. Fears about the AstraZeneca jab’s impact on the new variant could affect not just travel but a whole host of unlockdown measures this spring, including businesses and hospitality.
Which brings me back to Johnson’s words last April in that press conference, when he bounced back to public life after hospitalisation. “What you’re going to get next week is really a road map,” he said. “A menu of options. The dates and times of each individual measure will be very much driven by where we are in the epidemic, what the data is saying, and we’re getting a lot more data every day now.”
Uncanny, huh? It’s like we’ve hit 6am again on the Groundhog Day alarm clock. The PM is again talking about a roadmap, this time on February 22, and again saying data will drive things.
Government insiders think he will use the mass rollout of workplace and community lateral flow tests to ease restrictions through March, April and May to outpace the existing variants. The morale-crushing impact of heavy restrictions on summer holidays at home and abroad may be a step too far for this PM.
Still, remember this. After his Alpine tunnel metaphor, Johnson actually said last year: “It is vital that we do not now lose control and run slap into a second and even bigger mountain.” We did indeed hit that second mountain (despite, as we revealed today, ministers betting that Test and Trace would avoid it), followed by an Everest of a third one. Let’s see if the PM’s real instincts have changed.