Katy Balls Katy Balls

Now what? The government’s Covid optimism is fading fast

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When the news broke on Sunday morning that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak planned to skip self-isolation — availing themselves of a loophole — the reaction was as much disbelief as fury. Could the Prime Minister and Chancellor, even for a second, think it right to excuse themselves from the Test and Trace regime that they have imposed on millions? They changed their minds (after just a few hours) but it raised wider concerns in the party: what on earth were they thinking? And is this typical of the quality of decision-making we can expect ahead of a tricky few weeks?

Of course they both had other plans in mind for so-called ‘freedom day’. By this point in the roadmap, the hope was the virus would be in retreat and the UK heading towards a ‘great British summer’. Ministers were counting down to their holidays while Johnson had spent the past few weeks focused on returning to his post-Covid domestic agenda with an underwhelming ‘levelling up’ speech, along with plans for a social care announcement to mark his two-year anniversary as PM. Now that has been delayed, likely until autumn. Perhaps later. The Covid crisis has not gone away.

‘He’s reluctant to embrace his old freedoms.’

‘A lot of people in government are bored of the pandemic now but we don’t have a choice,’ says one minister. Neither will the 4.5 million people forecast to be pinged between now and 16 August, when the double-jabbed will be exempt from self-isolation. It adds up to a summer of political dysfunction.

There is unease in Westminster about the next few months — and whether Johnson’s team is up to the task. No. 10 aides find themselves between a rock and a hard place: facing flak from scientists and Labour for easing too many rules and from their own side for not relaxing them enough, especially the self-isolation guidance.

Government departments are split on which is the bigger threat: the virus or the ‘pingdemic’.

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