Isabel Hardman

The delicate balancing act of lockdown messaging

The delicate balancing act of lockdown messaging
(Photo by Pippa Fowles / No. 10 Downing Street)
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Matt Hancock spent Monday evening trying to explain a very delicate tension to the public. There’s the good news of the vaccine and his determination that all four of the most vulnerable priority groups will be vaccinated by mid-February. And then there’s the bad news that in the meantime, coronavirus is spreading and we haven’t yet seen the worst of its impact on the NHS.

So alongside announcing that more than 2.3 million people across the UK have had their first dose of the vaccine, Hancock warned at Monday night's Downing Street press briefing that unless the public sticks to the rules, he will have to tighten restrictions on meeting others for exercise. He did, however, rule out ending support and childcare bubbles, saying: ‘I know how important they are to people and they are an important part of the system that we have got to support people’. But he did warn that people must also stick to just one bubble, rather than moving between groups in order to socialise.

If ministers are so anxious about people being too relaxed and not following the rules, why is Hancock so keen to talk about the progress of the vaccine? Boris Johnson today warned that there was a risk of people seeing the rollout of the vaccination programme as a reason to grow complacent when, in fact, the UK was in a ‘perilous moment’. So why be upbeat? There are a number of reasons, the first being that ministers hope the public will see that this lockdown cannot go on forever as the vaccine is going to bring an end to the pandemic.

The second is that within the Conservative party, there is a great deal of pressure on the government to roll out the vaccine as quickly as possible so that the restrictions can start to lift. And on that, the Covid Recovery Group — which had been a little more supportive in the first few days of 2021 than it was last year — is starting to get agitated again. This evening the group’s chair Mark Harper issued a statement in which he demanded much more detail from ministers on when life will start to return to normal. He said:

For people to have hope, they need to know exactly how and when the government will lift restrictions and when our freedoms, economy and health prospects will be fully restored. The government must today identify the extra test, on top of administering the vaccine — is it death rates, hospital admission numbers, hospital capacity or something else. The goalposts must not keep shifting.

These cycles of lockdowns and restrictions have an impact on jobs, health and life chances that will be visible for years to come. It’s vital we act as swiftly as we possibly can to vaccinate those most at risk, so that we reduce harm caused by Covid, but then also to lift restrictions when it is safe to do so.

It’s a reminder that despite deciding not to cause too much trouble on the imposition of a third lockdown in England, Conservative MPs still don’t feel they can trust the word of the Prime Minister or his colleagues in government when they talk about life returning to normal. Perhaps if Johnson hadn’t been so keen to express optimism early on in the pandemic, he would find a bit more sympathy from his party and the public as he tries to communicate the current good and bad news.