Boris Johnson used today's press conference to issue sobering news: warning that the new Covid strain may be more deadly. The better news? The vaccines that have been approved are likely to be as effective against the new strain as the original. There were also figures to suggest things are slowly improving: the R number has fallen to a rate of between 0.8 and 1. And 5.4 million people, around one in ten of the adult population, have now received their first dose of the vaccine.
Yet despite the good news on the vaccine rollout, there is little in the way of optimism in 10 Downing Street this week. Instead, advisers and officials are increasingly pessimistic over the chance of easing restrictions anytime soon, with the Prime Minister's spokesperson declining this week to even say lockdown would be over by the summer. 'Remember when people spoke of the vaccine as the way to freedom?', says one official lamenting the recent change in tone in Whitehall.
Officials are keen to stress that easing of lockdown isn't just down to the vaccinations or the R number. They also have to look at the prevalence of the virus and the high number of new cases. With over 40,000 recorded on Friday, this is a big cause of concern. While the vaccine rollout is moving at pace, there are several factors making ministers nervous about its effectiveness.
A a reduction in the number of Pfizer vaccine doses available in the short term (as the company updates its manufacturing base) has added to the logistical challenge. At the moment, the government plans to give everyone their second Pfizer dose within twelve weeks. The worry: 'What happens if the supplies fall short? We could have limited effectiveness and have wasted vaccines,' says an adviser.
The biggest concern is new variants popping up which could beat the vaccine. Strains in Brazil and South Africa are a particular worry, with Matt Hancock suggesting to a private audience that the latter could make current Covid jabs 50 per cent less effective. It's for these reasons that the government is considering a drastic toughening of its border policy.
A meeting will take place early next week discussing options – including hotel quarantine – with a decision expected later in the week. However, any big change to the current system will take time to put in place. While it's Hancock and Priti Patel who have been pushing for hotel quarantine for all new arrivals to the UK, even Cabinet hawks are warming to the idea of more limits on international travel – if it means a closer return to normality at home.
Perhaps then given the gloomy backdrop, it's little surprise tensions are building across government. A clash broke out between the Treasury and Department of Health on Friday over reports that the government was considering a payment of £500 to anyone who tested positive for coronavirus if they isolated for ten days. It was quickly slapped down by both the Treasury and No. 10. 'The policy is mad,' says a government figure. However, others wonder why it's taken so long to tackle the issue of low compliance on self isolation: 'The fact policies are only being discussed now is shocking,' says an official.
In Downing Street, the new Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield is beginning to assert his authority as he settles into the role and tries to bring more discipline to the operation. Ministers say he is starting to make his presence felt. The first step? A desk reshuffle in Boris Johnson's private office. Johnson's longstanding aide Eddie Lister, 71, has been moved from his desk which is the closest to the Prime Minister's office.
Instead he has had to move to Dominic Cummings' former desk, which is slightly further away, as Chief of Staff Rosenfield has chosen to have his desk in the spot nearest the Prime Minister. It's a move that has received mixed reviews. 'Feathers have been ruffled,' says a Downing Street source. One City Hall staffer has since switched rooms. As Rosenfield gets to grips with his new role, he is understood to be taking a particular interest in the policy unit.
Meanwhile in the parliamentary party, members of the Covid Recovery Group have grown frustrated at the refusal of the government to rule out lockdown continuing all the way through to spring and even summer. They are pushing once again for an exit strategy and timeline. However, these demands are likely to receive short shrift.
Attitudes to lockdown sceptic MPs have hardened across government: 'What would have happened if we'd have taken their advice all along? It would not be good,' says an adviser. The Prime Minister is insistent that this lockdown must be the last. As a result, however, it could go on for a rather long time. 'We can't have a situation where we ease things too soon and lose the progress we have made,' says a No. 10 aide. Ministers now speak as though May would be a good case scenario for significant easing.
Tory MPs themselves are also voicing frustration with their colleagues calling for a quick easing. 'The bulk of us are more realistic about Covid than our noisy colleagues who shout the loudest but are small in numbers,' says a red wall MP. 'Even on issues like Universal Credit, everyone in the bubble obsesses but on the ground our constituents care about the vaccine rollout – and we have a good news story for once.'
MPs in former red wall seats are also growing increasingly confident that Keir Starmer does not pose much of a threat to them. 'The more he flip flops, the more people don't like Keir. He's seems shifty. He's like a husband during a divorce proceeding who says they will be civil but then can't resist jabs,' one says.
For once, the place where there is the most optimism for the months ahead is in the Tory parliamentary party where MPs believe the vaccine rollout is having plenty of positive cut through. Little wonder there is now a keenness to press on with the May local elections where the party could benefit from a vaccine poll boost. But with concern growing in No. 10 over the obstacles ahead, the next few months could be even bumpier than many of Johnson's MPs expect. The hope among MPs is that despite recent warnings, things are better than ministers let on – that this is part of a recent attempt to under promise and over deliver.