The Saturday View – No.10 Is Stuck In A “Holding Pattern” On Roadmap Messaging As Covid Cases Spiral
The decision about whether England can move to the final stage of the roadmap out of lockdown on 21 June hangs in the balance after a week in which new cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19 have spiralled.
There were 6,238 new cases reported on Friday, the highest since March 2. Cases in England had increased 76% in the week ending 29 May according to latest ONS estimates. Public Health England have declared the Delta variant is now dominant in the UK, while latest ONS data confirmed infections are widespread across the whole country.
But the government’s determination to wait until 14 June to commit to whether England will or won’t remove the last coronavirus restrictions, and parliament being in recess, has contributed to a week of uncertainty as voices at the extreme end of each argument have vied to fill the void.
Lockdown-sceptic Tory backbenchers are loudly urging the government to get on with it, pointing to the phenomenal vaccine roll-out, which has now seen more than 50% of adults receive two doses. When Matt Hancock gave a speech celebrating news 75% of adults had received at least their first dose of a vaccine, there was much back-slapping around Westminster.
But while deaths dropped by 5.2% and hospitalisations by 2.2% this week, indicating that vaccines do seem to be working, many in the science community have issued increasingly panicked pleas for the government to hit pause until we can be certain more people are protected.
One government aide bemoaned that we were “stuck in a holding pattern” while we wait for the impact of the previous step on the roadmap to reveal itself.
Meanwhile top government figures have made only sporadic appearances to repeat the mantra that there is still "nothing in the data” to suggest the roadmap out of lockdown would be affected by recent events.
Other than a sun-kissed photo released to the press from his relaxed Downing Street wedding to partner Carrie Symonds on Saturday, before disappearing on a mini-honeymoon, Boris Johnson has only been seen twice in public since last Thursday.
Speaking to journalists from a children’s tea party in the No.10 garden on Wednesday – which had been swiftly transformed after the weekend’s festivities – Johnson sought to reassure the public over concerns about the new mutant strain of Covid that has taken hold around the country.
Johnson reiterated that while it was expected that cases would rise after some restrictions eased on 17 May, it is still unclear whether the vaccination programme is yet sufficient to prevent the surge translating into increased hospitalisation and death.
Johnson acknowledged “people want a clear answer” about whether step four would go ahead this month, but said “we’ve just got to wait a little bit longer” as the information coming in was “still ambiguous”.
On Thursday, Johnson held a photocall as he got his second Covid jab at the Francis Crick Institute in London.
A No.10 insider defended the government’s refusal to commit to pausing or going ahead at this stage. “Obviously everyone is more interested earlier in this step than we've had in previous ones”, they told PoliticsHome.
“But it's the exact same as the approach we've taken at each step, you really do need all of the data before you can provide an update. And we've said all along that that will be done a week before the step.”
A lack of Downing Street press conferences during parliamentary recess has meant that journalists and the public have sought answers elsewhere, and scientists and sceptics alike have gladly taken to the airwaves to provide them.
Linda Bauld from Edinburgh University warned it was “too early to be charging ahead”, while Adam Finn, from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said it would be “a bad decision” to stick with June 21. Ravi Gupta, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, called on ministers to push the date back “by a few weeks”.
On Friday Independent Sage issued a bold warning to hold off easing lockdown further or risk a third wave.
No.10 was said to be irked by the volume of scientists offering forbearance, but not as annoyed as former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who claimed there was an “organised effort” to stop June 21 from going ahead.
When not a single death from Covid was reported by the government on Tuesday the chorus of Conservative MPs calling on Johnson not to delay the roadmap grew even louder.
The mood music has begun to change in the past 48 hours though, not helped by the decision to shunt Portugal off the “green list” of preferred holiday destinations and onto the “amber list” of countries Brits shouldn’t travel to, forcing many to cancel holidays.
Announcing the decision on Thursday, Grant Shapps showed the first shift in tone with hints that measures may need to be taken to prevent the Delta variant from impacting the roadmap.
“The decisive action today is designed to protect the future, to make sure that we can do a domestic unlock or give ourselves the best possible chance of doing so,” he said.
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick also sounded a less optimistic tone yesterday, as he heralded an “important moment” in the decision making process. “I hope that people will see that taking a safety first approach, at this point, is the right thing to do,” he said.
The “safety first” line was later echoed by Matt Hancock who emerged early Friday evening to respond to the week's developments.
"We're absolutely determined to keep this country safe, especially from novel variants coming from overseas," he said.
Johnson is still seemingly keen to stick to his guns on the 21 June deadline, but even from industries that would be affected by a delay, including weddings and events businesses who are desperate to get back to work, there is growing pressure on the PM to provide certainty either way.
Ministers have indicated that leaving things to the last date possible – 14 June – is creating further confusion.
But a government adviser dismissed the criticism, saying it was entirely right to give themselves as much time as possible to get the best picture of what is going on.
“If we cancel things now and the cases don’t translate into hospitalisations then people aren’t going to wear it,” they added.
But with another 10 days until Johnson’s hand is forced, and competing outside voices getting louder as both Covid cases and vaccination numbers continue to climb, it’s becoming clearer the government’s “holding pattern” may not hold much longer.