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Just when you think you’ve got it beat, Covid-19 somehow comes back stronger. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger but without the charm, this Terminator of a virus has an “I’ll be back” menace that risks undoing all the hard work of the UK’s stunning vaccine rollout.
The epic battle between the vaccines and the virus certainly has high stakes. Perhaps that’s why Boris Johnson sounded unusually nervous as he announced he would indeed be postponing ‘Freedom Day’ by another four weeks. Instead of the sunshine of Midsummer Merrie England, there was a blizzard of scary charts of projected hospitalisations.
Fluffing his lines, the PM referred to “the adults of this company” (he meant “country”) and then wrongly declared the new unlocking date was July 29th (correcting it later to July 19th). Polling shows most of the public are relaxed about a delay, but Johnson is acutely aware that the 24% who are unhappy include several of his own backbenchers, and it showed.
Nowhere was this more telling than in his repeated reassurance that the Freedom Day Mk II was the real deal. He was “pretty confident” that July 19 will be “the terminus date” (he said “terminal date” too). June 21 was always a “‘not before’ date”, whereas this was much firmer, he suggested. This was not a defeat for lockdown sceptics, it was a victory, he seemed to imply.
That spin may or may not work on Tory MPs, but it could paint the PM into a corner for the first time in months. Ever since he bowed to Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance’s plan for a cautious roadmap, he has been able to fall back on their insistence that all four tests have to be met (the new variant test was particularly shrewd) and that “data not dates” will drive his decisions.
But now with talk of “terminal” and fixed timelines, it feels like dates not data is the new approach. Steve Baker, Mark Harper and Sir Charles Walker, who will probably vote against the delay, have much more concrete evidence of a breach of faith should that July 19 date somehow slip again.
Whitty and Vallance gave the PM invaluable backing at the press conference. The chief medical officer in particular pointed out that even without the Indian variant, the very restoration of unrestricted indoor mixing of “households that are unrelated” was always going to lead to an uptick in cases. He added there had to come a point where fatalities switched from “deaths averted” to deaths delayed”, as with flu.
Patrick Vallance even suggested that locking down beyond July 19 would be counter-productive. And he made the case for that date containing the Goldilocks calculation of just how hot or cold to make the roadmap porridge. Giving over-18s their first jab and pushing unlockdown closer to the school holidays certainly added some sugar, as did a lifting of the cap on wedding numbers.
Still, for Keir Starmer, the talk of 19 July as a “terminal” date is an opportunity for a Judgement Day on Johnson’s competence. If the vaccination programme can’t sufficiently flatten the Delta variant spike, he is sure to step up his own attack line that Johnson’s failure to stop flights from India is the real culprit. Already today, the Labour leader hardened his rhetoric to say it was a “pathetic” border policy that had postponed freedoms.
Starmer’s clear aim is to drive a big wedge between the excellence of the NHS vaccine rollout and the government’s wider failures. It’s unclear whether it was the PM’s desire to keep alive post-Brexit trade talks with Narendra Modi that prompted his inaction, but the suggestion that he recklessly undermined both the NHS’s programme and public sacrifices is a toxic one.
Today’s failure to offer extra financial support to businesses added extra political risk too. Those firms which were hanging on by their fingertips will now face having to pay their share of furlough bills, with no extra income to fund them. Add in the self-employed already upset and an Opposition that was pro-enterprise could make inroads.
To oversee one Covid wave is a misfortune, to allow two begins to look like carelessness. But to trigger a third wave, squandering all the good work of your own vaccine success story, could be seen as unforgivable by a public which has to date been incredibly forgiving of its prime minister.