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17 February 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:00pm

What’s behind Boris Johnson’s newfound caution about unlocking?

The Prime Minister's insistence that we need to be "optimistic, but also patient" in easing restrictions is a marked change of tone from last year. What has changed his mind?

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson delivered the latest Downing Street coronavirus briefing on 15 February with cautious but positive comments that have either frustrated or placated Conservative MPs itching for an end to lockdown, depending on which newspapers you read.

The Prime Minister, ahead of unveiling his “roadmap” out of lockdown next Monday (22 February), said that we need to be “optimistic, but also patient” in our approach to easing restrictions. “We want progress to be cautious, but also irreversible,” he read from a sheet in front of him, emphasising that this lockdown must be the last.

The change of tone and approach will be lost on no one, and in it we can detect the hand of certain cabinet ministers, such as Matt Hancock, along with Allegra Stratton, the former journalist turned Downing Street press secretary, as well as Dan Rosenfield, the Prime Minister’s new chief of staff.

After a year that even Johnson’s supporters would admit was characterised by over-promising and under-delivering, the new strategy is one (they hope) of cautious under-promising followed by exceeding expectations even going so far as to set an official target of the end of April for everyone in the first nine priority groups to be vaccinated, when the real target deadline seems to be the end of March.

The change of approach is also evidenced by the much-improved communications around the precise ideas for unlocking. While plenty of thoughts about what unlocking could look like and when it could happen are swirling around the press, there is a much clearer over-arching message that unlocking is contingent on precise data about the effectiveness of the vaccine (that is, its precise dampening effect on deaths, hospitalisations and rates of transmission) that has yet to be revealed. We are still hearing about the ideas popping up on draft plans and in internal discussions, but these aren’t being taken as gospel in the same way as provisional ideas have been during previous lockdowns.

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The obvious difference between the government’s approach in 2020 versus now, of course, is the departure of Dominic Cummings and some of his allies, including Lee Cain, formerly Downing Street’s director of communications. The paradox is, however, that Cummings wants it to be known that he did urge Boris Johnson to lock down pre-emptively in September. The chaos and the unwillingness to lock down that characterised Johnson’s approach to the second wave isn’t necessarily attributable to the now-departed Cummings.

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Rosenfield and Stratton strike a markedly different tone to Cummings, and they can expect to take much of the credit for the smoothness of the government’s current approach, combined with the impact of Cummings’ departure. But given the role that Cummings did and didn’t play in decisions last year, it is probably more helpful to view the shift in approach as coming from a change of heart in the Prime Minister himself, whose image was negatively affected by the spike in cases and deaths after Christmas. As a result, Johnson seems to be listening to certain voices in cabinet over others. The more cautious approach to unlocking is as much about Matt Hancock being up and Rishi Sunak being down in the estimation of the Prime Minister as it is about the personnel change in No 10.