Will the Indian variant derail the government's roadmap for ending lockdown? That's the question that has been asked multiple times in Whitehall this week. After an increase in community transmission was reported in parts of the North West including Bolton, the Prime Minister set the cat among the pigeons on Friday by suggesting it could impact the planned easing for June 21. Since then, there have been plenty of scientific advisers taking to the airwaves to warn of trouble ahead. However, as I write in this week's magazine, there is increasing optimism across government that the roadmap will be able to proceed.
As things stand, Johnson is unpersuaded that the data suggests there will have to be a delay. Instead, he thinks some of the gloom has been overdone. Suggestions that the chances of all restrictions being lifted next month are ‘close to nil’ have not landed well with ministers. ‘Anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen doesn’t know,’ says one peeved government figure.
At this week’s cabinet, attendees were given a Covid presentation by the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, which suggested that the data had not got significantly worse since Friday. Downing Street hopes that in a week or so they will have a clearer sense of how much of a problem the Indian variant is — most crucially, how transmissible it is. The current understanding in No. 10 is that it’s a little more contagious but not as bad as originally feared. One minister says there is a growing sense that 'things are not as bad as they first seemed'.
Crucially, the vaccines appear to work against the variant. As long as that remains the case, any extension of lockdown measures will be a hard sell to Tory MPs. ‘There is a strong sense of relief among the public that the crisis is over, we can’t go back there,’ says a minister. Concerned Tory MPs have been making their opposition to any delay known to the whips. ‘It would mean we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,’ says one.
While things ought to be clearer in a week or so once more comprehensive data is in, the more likely scenario for June 21 right now is not a delay but a push to water down what an 'end to restrictions' looks like in practice. ‘Everyone is using the variant to get their favourite political argument over the line — whether it’s keeping social distancing, border controls, or vaccine passports,’ says one official. However, what encourages MPs and ministers who wish to see an end to restrictions is that they believe Johnson ultimately wants the same. ‘We have a prime minister who given half a chance would lift restrictions on everything,’ notes a minister.