POLITICS
17/05/2021 22:22 BST | Updated 18/05/2021 07:40 BST

Will Ministers Share Any Responsibility For The Rise Of The Indian Variant?

Strange absence of PM-in-pub photo-ops tells its own story

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What a difference a week makes. Just seven days ago, Boris Johnson was cautiously upbeat in his Downing Street news conference, confirming the May 17 unlockdown of pubs and hugs would go ahead as planned. By the end of the month, he said, we would find out whether social distancing rules would be scrapped totally by June 21.

As the heavens opened across the country, there were certainly a few people relieved that al fresco pints and meals were no longer their only option. But unfortunately what has really rained on the PM’s parade is the highly transmissible so-called ‘Indian variant’ of Covid, the virus formerly known as B 1617.2.

That’s perhaps why, on this longed-for day of release and relief, Johnson was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t in front of the cameras pulling a frothy-headed pint of ale or raising a glass of fruity wine. And he definitely wasn’t giving another press conference, particularly as last Friday he admitted the June 21 date could well be derailed by the new variant.

Instead, it was left to the PM’s official spokesman to signal that the roadmap could be amended. Asked about his boss’s commitment to publishing the review of social distancing, he replied: “We need time to assess the latest data on this variant first identified in India, so I am not going to give a set time for doing that.”

That was just the start of the softening-up process. The spokesman also refused to rule out a return to tiered or local lockdowns.

And with evidence that more than half of those in hospital in Bolton with the new variant had refused to get a jab, he gently warned that the vaccine hesitant were putting at risk the over-50s who had just one dose. People with immunity problems [like cancer patients] who had two doses were also at risk of the new variant.

“We would want everybody...to think of others as well as themselves when considering whether to get the vaccine,” the spokesman said. In his Commons update, health secretary Matt Hancock revealed the granular detail of the variant surge: 2,323 cases (a rise of 76% in just four days); 86 local authorities with five or more cases.

But Hancock’s main message was this: the spike in cases in Bolton showed “it is the unvaccinated who end up in hospital”. That wasn’t strictly true, as even his own detailed stats showed. Of 18 people in hospital in Bolton yesterday, 5 had been vaccinated once, 1 person twice and 12 had not been jabbed at all. Crucially, however, of those 12 the ‘majority’ had been eligible for a jab but hadn’t taken it.

Hancock’s words sounded like an echo of the No.10 message that the ‘vaccine hesitant’ should start thinking of others as well as themselves. But even as ministers ever so subtly implied the spread of the Indian variant is now basically a matter of personal responsibility, there was a strong case that it ought to be a matter of government responsibility too.

And Yvette Cooper was swift to pounce upon the role Downing Street had played in failing to put India on the ‘red list’ of countries a lot earlier.

In a lengthy session, Hancock answered questions from some 50 MPs. But he failed to answer any of Cooper’s. How many of the 2,323 cases were from people who travelled directly from India? How many caught it from others who had been in India? With Indian travellers on April 7 having a fifty times higher rate of Covid than UK residents, what had that rate risen to by April 19, when the nation was finally red-listed?

Hancock ducked each of those, while insisting that at all times the government followed the scientific advice. He said he had placed India on the danger list even before B 1617.2 was officially deemed ‘a variant of observation’, let alone a ‘variant of concern’. “We have to take decisions based on the evidence,” he said.

It’s worth saying that so far, the evidence from the Indian variant hotspots is mixed (some areas have suppressed it) and that the UK’s superior genomic sequencing is probably why we’ve found so many more cases than other countries. Early data suggests our vaccines work well against it. Yet the mood within Whitehall is one of being braced for delays until the full data picture emerges.

Don’t forget that Chris Whitty told the Commons sci and tech committee in March that each of the stages of the roadmap contained really big groups of changes. Today is a very good example: hugging, indoor mixing, cinemas, pubs, restaurant and hotel opening, exercise classes, sports events, bigger weddings and funerals. Each of those bits of data will have to be assessed even without an Indian variant complication.

Despite the PM’s statement last week that it is “certainly our intention” to end the work-from-home-if-you-can advice, some scientists are already saying that keeping that edict in place feels like one of several measures (like mask wearing) would be an easy way to just buy more time to absorb today’s changes.

Hancock admitted we had enough vaccine stocks to jab the over-12s, so that too may be another weapon. Smaller steps from June 21, rather than another ‘big bang’ of relaxations, may make more sense.

Given all Johnson’s caution in this latest lockdown, a caution driven by an intense desire to make sure this is the last ever national lockdown, the next few days pose a big test. B 1617.2 is forcing him to accept that ‘data not dates’ is more than just a soundbite after all.

If the variant is contained quickly, I suspect ministers will be more than happy to take their share of the credit. But if it takes off, it already feels like they won’t want to share the blame.