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What Boris learned from Gordon

Monday 22 February 2021

The plan to exit lockdown, unveiled by the PM this evening, will only work if the country accepts its complexity and can tolerate further delays

Boris Johnson is starting to sound like Gordon Brown: not a sentence I thought I would ever write. Yet, as the prime minister prepares to unveil his road-map out of Covid lockdown, his declared strategy is that each step must be “cautious but irreversible”. 

One is instantly reminded of Brown’s “prudence with a purpose”, or his “preliminary and technical” approach to the UK’s theoretical entry to the Euro (which he fiercely opposed). It is a way of speaking that came naturally to New Labour’s Iron Chancellor, but goes quite against the grain of Johnson’s normally flamboyant rhetoric and boosterism, and his long-cultivated image as the laughing cavalier of the Conservative Party.

In November 1997, Brown unveiled the five tests that would have to be passed if we were ever to join the European single currency (apocryphally said to have been drawn up in the back of a taxi by his long-time ally, Ed Balls). 

Today, almost a quarter-century later, the prime minister will set out his own suite of tests for the unwinding of pandemic restrictions: only four such assessment criteria, I grant you, but quintessentially Brownite in spirit all the same. They will be: the extent and success of vaccine deployment; a continuing decrease in hospital admissions and deaths; the pressure on the health service; and the impact of variants of the virus. 

It should be immediately apparent that these criteria are skewed towards circumspection. They enable the PM to slow down or even halt the phased relaxation of the present lockdown regime. They will be presented as a dashboard, but their real function is to provide Johnson with an emergency brake to apply whenever he sees fit.

The phrase “cautious but irreversible” deserves to be unpacked, too. As I wrote last week, the PM – still instinctively a libertarian – has learned the hard way that instincts are no substitute for aggregated data and epidemiological evidence. Careful expectation management is absolutely critical to the next phase of his pandemic strategy. In the 11 months since he “instructed” us all to stay at home for the first time, Johnson has erred perilously and repeatedly on the side of unearned optimism – promising a swift end to restrictions long before he could sensibly do so. 

“This time,” says one Downing Street source, “there can be no cheques written that we cannot cash. If we promise some sort of restored liberty or relaxation, we bloody well have to deliver. So the whole thing will be wrapped in extreme caution.”

What about “irreversible”? This word is being deployed politically rather than literally. Johnson and his advisers know perfectly well that nothing in a pandemic can be so described with absolute confidence. 

What if the existing variants – especially the Brazilian and South African mutations – or one of the many other new strains that will emerge soon enough, starts to spread fast and furiously, even among those who have received the jab? At the moment, there is no immediate reason to fear that the existing variants will smash through the crash barrier of the vaccines – at least not to an extent that results in a surge of serious illness or death. But it would be folly for any politician or scientist to declare definitively that the position will be the same in six months time, when – conceivably – whole new regiments of variants will be marching, snarling, across the globe.

Other, less obvious dangers are emerging, too. One such is that younger people, though generally much less likely to be hospitalised or to die when infected, are developing long Covid in greater numbers than anticipated by the government’s advisers and forecasters. 

Hence, one particular scenario is troubling Whitehall. Let us say that all people over the age of 50 are indeed vaccinated by 15 April, as Matt Hancock, the health secretary, hopes; and that all adults receive the jab by the end of July. What, precisely, happens in the intervening three-and-a-half month gap?

If the young start to go back to work too quickly, unvaccinated, a great many of them will be infected. According to present trends, 5 to 10 per cent of them will be stricken with long Covid – a potential addition of two to three million out-patients to NHS lists. As one scientific adviser puts it: “If we rush economic reopening, we could end up with a generation of chronically-ill young people who will be unwell in different ways – indefinitely.”

This is the core problem with lockdown measures and their relaxation. The system is so tightly geared that one misstep can have hugely damaging consequences. And – as ministers admit in private – that means that anything is still possible.

So when Johnson says “irreversible” he is making a political point, rather than expressing an epidemiological fact. He is acknowledging that the public would almost certainly not tolerate a fourth national lockdown and that such a measure would also nudge the UK’s economic predicament from the merely dreadful to the truly calamitous. Lockdown 4.0 is both entirely possible – and absolutely unthinkable.

One of the PM’s purposes, I am told, is to coax the public, businesses and his own restive party towards the recognitions and concessions that they, in turn, must make. “Absolutely everything is about trade offs and practicality now,” says one Number Ten source. 

Hence the emphasis in today’s plan upon schools and renewed social contact. You might think that the default Conservative impulse would be to focus on economic liberalisation; but Johnson’s calculation is that he must first offer a degree of respite from the isolation of lockdown and, as an absolute priority, liberate children from the confines of their homes by reopening schools on 8 March. “If this is going to work,” says one ministerial source, “it has to be absolutely clear that we are coming from a good, human space and that the return of tolerable living is our first priority.’

It is also, frankly, easier to promise people that they will be able to meet a friend for coffee than it is to deal with the nightmarish complexity of reopening the economy. Here, to take but one example, Johnson finds himself up against the whole, gravely misunderstood question of “vaccine passports”.

To be clear: absolutely nobody in government is proposing the imposition by the state of such documents. The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 forbids mandatory medical treatment, and there is zero prospect of that law’s amendment in the foreseeable future. Yet more than 168,000 people have already signed a parliamentary petition objecting to the phantom autocratic measure of a government-enforced Covid passport. So a bit of clarification is clearly in order.

First, it will certainly be necessary soon enough to carry proof of vaccination against Covid in order to be admitted to certain countries – perhaps to most. This is already standard practice at many borders where evidence is required of immunisation against yellow fever, polio, and meningococcal meningitis.

Second – and quite separately – employers, restaurants, pubs and cultural venues face difficult decisions about whether or not to demand proof of vaccination, a recent negative test certificate, or even an on-the-spot test. This will not be a formal dilemma until the vaccine has been made available to all adults. But – when that moment arrives – it will be a huge social, political and legal issue.

Not surprisingly, modern jurisprudence on this question is confusing, for the simple reason that the specific question has not arisen before. But Charlie Mullins, the chief executive of Pimlico Plumbers, has raised it quite brazenly by announcing a “no jab, no job” policy at his company. 

Is this legal? It depends whom you ask. 

On the one hand, such a demand could be characterised as unlawful “economic duress”. It could also fall foul of the Equality Act 2010, under whose elastic provisions it might be judged discriminatory.

On the other hand: employers are permitted to impose such a restriction if they can show it is a “proportionate means” of achieving a “legitimate aim”. More to the point, they are obliged under the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to take “reasonably practicable” measures to protect the health of their employees and contractors. Does the expectation that everyone in the reopened workplace should carry proof of vaccination – except those with a medical exemption, such as pregnant women – fall under that rubric?

If such questions seem fiddly and headache-inducing, that is because they are. Welcome to the long and twisty road out of lockdown to which the prime minister will provide an introduction this evening. 

For some, the nuance of what is coming is in itself an affront. The libertarian Conservative MP Steve Baker – rapidly becoming a favourite of this column – told ITV’s Robert Peston last week that he was dead set against theatres, pubs and other venues demanding proof of vaccination from their punters, as this would “implicitly coerce” them to get the jab. 

These are weasel words at which even a weasel might baulk. What Baker is saying, in essence, is that a service provider has no right to expect its customers to show proof of immunisation, even when their premises are obvious venues for infection and the illness in question is a notifiable disease. 

This is to transform libertarianism into a permanent tantrum disguised as a philosophy – “implicit coercion” being one of the silliest ideas to have been spawned by the pandemic. Baker and his fellow members of the backbench Covid Recovery Group have been vociferous about the urgent need to reopen the economy: a legitimate position. But they cannot now object if businesses, desperate to open their doors again, introduce health and safety checks to expedite precisely that objective. And these, don’t forget, are the people that are supposed to be on Johnson’s side. 

The only thing that the message “Stay at Home” has to recommend it is simplicity. From this evening, we shall be embarking on a path of complexity, unpredictability and – in all likelihood – frustrating delay. Such is the reward of the vaccine deployment triumph: tonight, Johnson will be leading us into thickets of extreme difficulty, requiring yet more stamina and patience. His challenge is clear enough. The better question is: are we up to the task?