The progress of the vaccine programme — and the falling death toll — will reopen the debate in the Tory party about how quickly restrictions should be eased, as I say in the magazine this week. This will be tricky for Boris Johnson. He is inclined to go slowly to ensure that this is the last lockdown; just look at how he is now talking about a national tier system, not a local one, to avoid once more over-promising and under-delivering.
But Tory MPs see the fast pace of vaccination as meaning that it will soon be safe to open up again. One long-time ally of the Prime Minister admits that as deaths start to fall there will be increased pressure for easing up. But the lack of slack in hospitals — which currently have bed occupancy around 40 per cent higher than previous surge capacity — will make that hard.
One thing driving the desire for a rapid reopening of society is a sense that many businesses can’t last much longer. A cabinet minister warns: ‘Even with all the schemes, businesses are running out of money… If we’re in lockdown much past Easter, people are going to go nuts.’
The news that the Oxford vaccine may reduce transmission by two-thirds is extremely significant. If this finding holds up, then it creates the possibility of a more comprehensive and rapid easing of the lockdown. Worries about vaccine-resilient variants mean that it is probable foreign travel will still be tightly controlled. But domestically, there could be a return to normality.
The success of Britain’s vaccine programme has improved the mood on the Tory benches and stopped the nascent grumbling against Johnson. But Tory MPs regard vaccination as a means to an end — the quickest way to reopen society and the economy. They will be impatient to see that happen.