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If you set a date as a politician, you can’t be surprised if the public hold you to it. So when Boris Johnson first revealed his March 8 deadline for reopening England’s schools, he knew he was taking a risk.
Of course, he built in some caveats, but for millions of parents, pupils and school staff, the timetable offered a hint of certainty. Here was a desperately longed-for moment that would restart the long process of helping kids to catch up on lost classroom time.
Just as crucial is the loss of playground time and travel-to-and-from-school time with friends. We should never forget that while a few months may seem a long time to adults, a few months is a much, much greater proportion of schoolchildren’s lives. That March 8 date held the promise that kids could be kids once more, and their parents could be parents (and workers) again.
That’s why No.10 worried some today when it hinted that the timetable may be slipping. It may feel like semantics, but it was rather odd that Downing Street just refused to commit to the PM’s previous promise of publishing his route map (for schools and other areas of public life) on Monday February 22, rather than the week beginning the 22. And with a promise of a fortnight’s notice for reopening schools, that would spell delay.
In recent years, people who use dating websites have seen the rise of the term “ghosting”, which means suddenly cutting off all contact after going on a date, without explanation. Johnson can’t ghost his MPs, or the public, but they may feel more than a little upset if he somehow wriggles out of this particular date of March 8.
The Tory backbench Covid Recovery Group certainly smelled trouble, with chair Mark Harper saying “it’s crucial we don’t backslide on this”. Vice chair Steve Baker added: “I fear senior scientists are failing to recognise their power to spread despair and despondency.” That felt like a pop at Sage member Sir Jeremy Farrar, who said daily infections still need to fall dramatically before a roadmap is published.
It’s worth saying that the PM has painted himself into corners before, and politically zip-wired his way back out of them. A few days delay here or there may not matter, if that’s all they are. Yet any slippage would inevitably lead to suspicions that further pledges should not be believed.
Which brings us to another thorny issue: just how schools will be fully reopened. The strong preference in No.10 has been against a regional staggering, but in favour of a gradual process of different year groups coming back at different times. But there are however growing calls from Tory MPs for the return of regional variation, or tiering.
In fact it was at the same press conference earlier this month when the PM first made his “on February 22” promise, that he also suggested all regions would walk out of the pandemic at the same rate. He talked about the graphs showing “pretty uniform” patterns across the country and said it felt like “we’ll be going down in tiers nationally”. There was a caveat that ”that obviously could change”, and he stressed he was keeping an “open mind”.
In recent days, London has been showing more dramatic falls in cases than in other areas, prompting some Tories to argue that varied tiers are back on the agenda. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham pounced, and warned that there would be a curious double standard if the north had been put into lockdown because of the capital’s cases, but kept in lockdown because of its own cases.
Burnham, who this week was candid enough to admit he still hadn’t ruled out becoming Labour leader one day, has certainly got under Johnson’s skin over the past year. His tweets in recent days have also failed to scotch speculation that he may face the PM in 2024 rather than Keir Starmer. (Stamer’s PPS Carolyn Harris tells our podcast she loves Burnham but “we’re doing fine on our own thanks, just support us”.)
Yet what would swing the PM back towards tiers would be sustained proof of differing case rates and progress in different areas. Some of his MPs (including in the north) are already muttering that they shouldn’t be penalised because “drag anchor” areas like parts of Greater Manchester are lagging behind.
Don’t forget that Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance supported tiers as a concept last year. The sheer speed of the spread of the “Kent variant” and higher transmissibility may make that concept redundant, however. The point is that in all that number crunching behind closed doors next week, both the politicians and scientists will be looking at how the north is doing.
If that March 8 date slips, stubbornly high rates in regions outside London could be the real reason, not just a slip of the tongue of the PM’s spokesman.