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Why so nervous, Boris?

Monday 15 February 2021

The PM is rightly proud of the vaccine roll-out’s success. But that success is fraught with danger

A week today, Boris Johnson will announce his so-called “road-map” out of lockdown, disclosing the key data that has been collated in the first 11 months of the pandemic and the government’s criteria for the phased relaxation of restrictions. For reasons that will become clear, this moment is one about which he is, I am told, “unusually nervous”.

The plan will not, ministers emphasise privately, be a “timeline” or a fixed chronology of any sort. We will be actively discouraged from circling dates on the calendar in indelible red marker pen with the words “Let freedom ring!” Freedom may well ring in due course, but only conditionally, and to the extent that scientific advice and the weight of evidence allow: which is sound policy but makes for a less exciting slogan.

Such situation reports to the nation are a ritual with which the prime minister is all too familiar – and one by which he has been badly bruised in the past, over-promising and under-delivering. As long ago as 19 March, he was brazenly asserting that the country would “send coronavirus packing” in 12 weeks. The only thing that the virus packed in the three months that followed was a vicious punch.

On 7 May, the popular press – clearly well-briefed – declared national emancipation to be only four days away. “HAPPY MONDAY” was the headline on the front page of the Sun, while the Daily Mail was even more jubilant: “HURRAH! LOCKDOWN FREEDOM BECKONS”. 

Don’t forget: at that point, less than a month had passed since Johnson’s own discharge from hospital on 12 April after Covid had nearly taken his life. Yet, in spite of his visible (and understandable) moments of indisposition as he recovered from a brush with death, his instinct for boosterism was unaffected.

On 17 July, he was at it again, unveiling a plan for a “more significant return to normality” by Christmas, urging those that could to return to work and supporting the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme already announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. 

Yet on 13 October, the PM was compelled by a fresh surge in infections to introduce the new tiered system. The ferocious spread of the Kentish variant of the virus – first detected in September – was the proximate cause of the second national lockdown announced on 31 October, and of the third, which followed on 5 January (and in which we presently languish).

All this has amounted to a dangerous stop-go pattern of behaviour, presenting more false dawns than a defective Zoom background setting. In the past, the bombastic pledges have always been at odds with dreadful shortages of PPE or the disaster of the test, trace and isolate system. 

What distinguishes the PM’s announcement next week is that he will disclose his latest plan in the context of unambiguously good news. He has no need to resort to vapid claims about “ramping up” or the UK’s “world-leading” pandemic strategy (which isn’t to say that he won’t – old habits die hard).

Yesterday, the government announced that it had achieved the initial target of vaccine roll-out, offering first doses to 15 million people in the top four most vulnerable categories identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (over-70s, older care home residents, frontline workers in health and social care, and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals over the age of 16). 

In an audio story last month, I described the roll-out as the greatest gamble of Johnson’s career – dependent as it is upon fragile supply lines, a hugely complex manufacturing process and the soothing of “vaccine hesitancy” among some prospective recipients of the jab. Thus far, the gamble is paying off, and then some. Whatever happens next, the passing of the 15 million milestone is an unambiguous triumph that will save a great many lives.

The paradox, of course, is that, in politics, even more than in life, no good deed goes unpunished. Johnson’s immediate reward for the first genuine success of his government’s pandemic strategy has been a fresh burst of demands from his own querulous backbenchers – more than 60 of whom are reported to have backed a letter insisting that coronavirus restrictions be fully lifted by the end of April.

The petition was formally signed by Mark Harper and Steve Baker, respectively chair and deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group, which sounds like a 12-step programme and is, in a sense, a form of therapy for those MPs clinically addicted to Brexit and looking for a new fixation. 

In one of the great non sequiturs of recent decades, Harper and Baker advance the following argument: “The vaccine gives us immunity from Covid, but it must also give us permanent immunity from Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions.”

What does that even mean? Have they heard of the proliferating variants of the virus that make a nonsense of their spindly metaphor? You’d think that two senior Conservative MPs (Harper is a former Chief Whip, no less) would know that any prime minister who offered any such guarantee would be either a fool or a knave – wouldn’t you?

In which context, it was good to hear Dominic Raab standing firm against this gormless bombast yesterday. As the foreign secretary put it to Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “We’re not making what feels to me a slightly arbitrary commitment without reviewing the impact the measures have had on the transmission, and the hospital admissions.” Raab is not, to put it mildly, the world’s greatest political communicator – but even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and in this case it did. 

The Government is already going out on a limb by promising to reopen schools on 8 March – before all of those in the top nine categories identified by the JCVI (all those aged 50 or over) have been offered the vaccine. Its quarantine hotel system for passengers from 33 high-risk countries comes into force today and, even before its introduction, has been beset by concern about “red list” travellers mingling on arrival at airports, hotel capacity (only 4,963 rooms have been secured so far), and compliance by those to whom the new regulations apply (each facing a charge of £1,750 for their 10-day confinement). 

As Raab let slip yesterday, the government remains theoretically open to the idea of vaccine passports, for use at home and abroad, but is seriously divided over the legality and practicality of such documents (whether state-issued or privately demanded on a case-by-case basis by employers, cultural venues and the hospitality sector).

Meanwhile, ministers await robust data on the epidemiological impact of vaccine roll-out. The preliminary signs are encouraging: early trials in Israel suggest that a recipient of only one dose of the Pfizer jab may be four times less likely to transmit the virus. But much more information is required before the government can promise much more than minimal relaxation.

The yearning to offer much more is, of course, overwhelming. The possibility of self-catered breaks in the UK by Easter has been tentatively mooted by Downing Street sources. More modestly, there is the prospect of picnics and coffees with a friend in the park during March.

Yet even this is threatened by what one minister described to me as the “quantum horror” of the virus variants and the possibility that an as-yet-unidentified mutation of Covid may arrive on these shores and render all such plans redundant in ways that are quite unforeseeable.

No less unpredictable are the political plans of the Chancellor who remains officially loyal but is definitely on manoeuvres. On Saturday, Sunak tweeted as follows: “Growing up I never thought I would be in this job (mainly because I wanted to be a Jedi). I’m honoured that on this day last year the PM asked me to serve as Chancellor.”

Leaving aside the humblebrag reference to Star Wars, this post was interpreted as a reminder to backbenchers that the favourite to succeed Johnson as leader is no longer a newcomer at Number 11. John Major became prime minister after only 13 months as Chancellor. Gordon Brown had to wait ten years.

There is no doubt which of the two career paths Sunak wants to follow. He is letting it be known that he is seeking advice from Nigel Lawson, Chancellor for six years under Margaret Thatcher – a clear signal to Tory backbenchers that, in spite of the prodigious spending of the pandemic emergency he remains committed to fiscal prudence, deregulation and tax cuts. “Nothing happens by accident in Rishi-land,” says one Tory source.

Mindful of the threat, Johnson is bolstering his own political team, recruiting Henry Newman, a longtime member of Michael Gove’s brains trust, as a senior adviser and the formidably able (Baroness) Simone Finn as his deputy chief of staff. “This isn’t happening by accident,” says one Downing Street source. “Boris knows he needs a better operation across the board – and that his next-door neighbour is getting restless.”

It is worth remembering that, only a few months ago, some at Westminster were confidently asserting that Johnson was still ill, that his pandemic strategy was a disaster from which he could not recover, that he would be gone by Christmas. 

This week, he has crossed the 15-million vaccine threshold, enjoys a five-point poll lead over Keir Starmer’s floundering Labour Party, and is preparing for a video conference on Friday with Joe Biden and the other members of the G7, of which the UK currently holds the presidency.

Why so nervous then? Because, as a lover of the ancient world, he knows how capricious the gods can be. Because he is conscious that the optimism spawned by the success of the vaccine would be lost in an instant if infection surges again. And because, if the past 11 months have taught him anything, it is that this brutal virus is the most capricious, unpredictable opponent that he will ever face.