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3 August 2021

Two Downing Street U-turns have triggered an acrimonious row inside government

The Conservative Party has decisively moved away not only from lockdowns but from the idea of restrictions full stop.

By Stephen Bush

Two Downing Street U-turns have triggered an acrimonious row inside the government. The first – and the cause of most of the finger-pointing from outside government – is the abandonment of plans to move to a more complicated system of travel restrictions, killed after a cabinet revolt and back-bench outcry. The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is getting the blame, having been the main sponsor of the scheme.

That Shapps is not only one of Boris Johnson’s most effective ministers but is also delivering consistently in an area – cycling and new infrastructure – about which the Prime Minister has pretty strong convictions surely means he won’t suffer any permanent damage.

The more politically significant U-turn is the second one, revolving around reducing the strength of the NHS Covid app: it will now look for close contacts in the two days prior to someone testing positive, rather than five days, and therefore will require fewer people to self-isolate.

Of course, the reason for this U-turn is that the Conservative Party has moved decisively away not only from lockdowns but from the idea of most restrictions full stop. One further consequence of this is that government ministers are feeling ever more able to push further and harder on the “return to offices” theme.

As Morning Callers with long memories will know, I think ministers are right about many of the advantages of in-person working, and that the young, new starters and people without social connections will suffer the decline of office working worst.

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But tempting as it is for a party whose electoral interests are served by bashing the young, the biggest threat to office working isn’t feckless members of Generation Z who don’t know what’s good for them; it is the large number of businesses opting to make a permanent saving by freeing themselves of the cost of their office estates, and outsourcing the expense of everything from heating to office supplies to home-workers.

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[see also: How low is Boris Johnson’s approval rating falling?]