Boris Johnson is coming under increased pressure from Tory MPs on both sides of the Covid debate today. On the one hand, there is former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt calling for schools and borders to close and a ban on all household mixing straight away in order to prevent the NHS from collapsing. On the other, there is Mark Harper, chair of the influential Covid Recovery Group, who has just issued a call for the government to start relaxing restrictions from February.
The two demands aren't necessarily mutually-exclusive: the two men just have rather different timescales. Hunt insisted this morning that the restrictions he is calling for 'will be time-limited to the 12 weeks or so it will take to get the vaccine out to those most vulnerable to Covid – so there is light at the end of the tunnel'.
Harper, meanwhile, is arguing that the vaccination programme could reasonably reach everyone over 65 by the third week of February. He said:
'The Health Secretary indicated that vaccinating everyone over 65 within seven weeks - by the third week of February – is feasible. Given that around 90 per cent of those who have died from Covid are over 65, their vaccination should be a clear threshold for when a substantial relaxation in restrictions can begin. The government must urgently set out exactly how the vaccination rollout will translate into a return to normal life for us all in 2021, how and when it will lift restrictions and when our freedoms, economy and health prospects will be fully restored.'
The Prime Minister had hoped in the autumn that when the vaccines started being approved, his party would start to relax about restrictions continuing in the interim. That didn't happen, and while Harper's demand of a February deadline may look like a way out from the standoff with his party over lockdowns and tiers, it is also extremely tight. The CRG want daily reporting on progress in the vaccination programme, and are clear that the current 'cycle of lockdowns and restrictions' aren't in their view working.
Today the Prime Minister's said the government was waiting 'to see the impact of the tier 4 measures on the virus, and it is a bit unclear, still, at the moment' before introducing further restrictions. Hunt thinks the government needs to act today.
Even if ministers do delay acting for a few more days until they have no further choice – as they have done throughout this crisis – they at least have time to start preparing the Tory backbenches for the next wave of restrictions. And those backbenchers have made it very clear how they're expecting to be prepared: they want evidence that the vaccine is rolling out as fast as possible, and they're not going to be fobbed off with vague assertions.