Katy Balls

The government debate over June 21

The government debate over June 21
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The roadmap out of lockdown is the signature document of Boris Johnson’s new team in No. 10. It’s intended to be cautious, detailed and based on a new mantra of under-promising and over-delivering. It’s meant to strike a contrast with the chaos that came in the early stage of the pandemic by projecting an image of competence and calm.

So far, so good. Each stage — including Monday’s easing — has proceeded as planned. The vaccine rollout has been the fastest in Europe (although the Prime Minister still complains, in private, that it could have gone faster) and is now credited by ministers as a large part of the reason the party made so many gains in the local elections. But with only one stage of the roadmap left, it now risks being derailed by the so-called Indian variant.

Downing Street had hoped to signal next week that the final unlocking of 21 June was on track to go ahead as planned. Preparations were under way for a big bang end to restrictions, and a timetable was being thrashed out for the announcement. But the presence of the Indian variant in parts of the north-west, including Bolton, means that plans have been put on hold. ‘Uncertainty is back — just as we thought we had finally got rid of it,’ laments one government aide.

As things stand, Johnson is unpersuaded, and thinks some of the gloom has been overdone. But even he now won’t say whether 21 June will go ahead — and the outcome of the government’s social distancing review has been moved from this month to next. Meanwhile, ministers have had to spend the week fielding questions about why it took so long to place India on the travel red list.

A familiar dance is being performed. The Prime Minister thinks scientists might be overly worried. But they think he will not dare do anything that defies their public advice. So we see the usual pattern of Sage scientists taking to the airwaves and anonymous briefings that the chances of all restrictions being lifted next month are ‘close to nil’. It hasn’t landed well with ministers. ‘Anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen doesn’t know,’ says one peeved government figure.

Concerned Tory MPs have been making their opposition to any delay known to the whips. ‘It would mean we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,’ says one. ‘It would be a total balls-up,’ another puts it more bluntly. They sense not a lack of prime ministerial resolve, but an inability to control the pro-lockdown forces around him. ‘We have a Prime Minister who given half a chance would lift restrictions on everything,’ notes a minister.

Old Covid divisions have returned to the fore. ‘Everyone is using the variant to get their favourite political argument over the line — whether it’s keeping social distancing, border control or vaccine passports,’ says one official. Ministers are back to debating Covid measures and questioning the current travel rules. Even the Prime Minister’s estranged former top aide Dominic Cummings has popped up to twist the knife — declaring the government’s border policy a ‘joke’. He’s due to give evidence in parliament next week.

At this week’s cabinet, attendees were given a Covid presentation by the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, which suggested that the data had not got significantly worse since Friday. Downing Street hope that in a week or so they will have a clearer sense of how much of a problem the Indian variant is — most crucially, how transmissible it is. The current understanding in No. 10 is that it’s a little more contagious, but not as bad as originally feared.

As long as the vaccines work (there’s no reason yet to doubt that they do), any extension of lockdown measures will be a hard sell to Tory MPs. ‘There is a strong sense of relief among the public that the crisis is over, we can’t go back there,’ says a minister. While the Treasury had already extended Covid support measures to September in preparation for any blips, talk of local lockdowns in the worst affected areas are worrying MPs in the north-west. They complain their constituents have already suffered the longest lockdowns in the country.

The government’s claim that many in hospital with Covid in Bolton were eligible for the vaccine but chose not to take it is also having consequences — introducing the notion of shaming (or at least blaming) the vaccine-hesitant. ‘Colleagues are questioning whether we can really ask people to not see their friends and families again, and to risk their livelihoods and businesses, for the sake of people who chose not to get vaccinated,’ says one Tory MP.

Others worry it could stir racial tensions, given vaccine hesitancy in certain ethnic minority groups. Among the over-fifties, 93 per cent of whites have had a first jab. But this falls to 82 per cent among South Asians and 66 per cent among the black community. These figures have barely changed for six weeks. This underlines concerns over Michael Gove’s ‘vaccine passport’ review. Ministers have indicated to industry that Covid identification is now likely to be needed for mass events — with lateral flow tests the most likely option for the unvaccinated. This presupposes that the idea would be approved by parliament.

With Johnson under fire for delaying the decision to place India on the red list ahead of his own (cancelled) trip there, ministers and MPs are now pushing for more travel restrictions. At cabinet, Matt Hancock linked a tightening of international travel rules to greater domestic freedom. ‘I can’t think of a single Tory MP who would oppose it right now, other than those with constituencies next to airports,’ says a minister.

This month’s elections showed that Covid hasn’t drastically harmed Boris Johnson’s political standing; the success of the vaccine programme has crowded out memories of the government’s earlier mistakes. If the 21 June target is hit, that sense will be reinforced. But the Tory strategist Isaac Levido has repeatedly warned Johnson and his ministers that while the public have been forgiving of errors made on the way into the pandemic, they are unlikely to be so forgiving of errors made on the way out. That includes Tory MPs.

It’s a difficult time to be the opposition
‘It’s a difficult time to be the opposition.’