A series of scientific breakthroughs mean that the era of lockdowns and social distancing is nearer to its end than its beginning. Two Covid-19 vaccines, produced by the pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer and the US biotech company Moderna respectively, have proved to be more than 90 per cent effective in trials. More importantly, a vaccine produced by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, while reportedly slightly less effective in some cases, will be much easier to store, produce and distribute over large distances. This means that it is likely to play a crucial role in eliminating the spread of the virus in the UK and across the world.
It’s small wonder that Boris Johnson, who struggles to give bad news and prefers to paint rhetorical pictures with bombastic lines and cheerful colours, seems revitalised by these announcements. The Prime Minister is still in isolation after meeting an MP who later tested positive for Covid-19. On 23 November, during a Commons debate, he was cut off by a broken video link, necessitating a mid-flight replacement by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.
Questions continued as if nothing much had changed (which is fitting, because in Westminster, and particularly within the Conservative Party, this is also the case with the government’s pandemic strategy). The first – and for some time, the only – question that Johnson was able to field was from Mark Harper, David Cameron’s final chief whip who is now the co-chair of the Covid Recovery Group (the CRG). The group, which has many of the same members as the pro-hard-Brexit European Research Group (the ERG), wants a greater focus on the economic, social and public health costs of locking down.
Harper asked for the consequences of each restriction to be weighed against the costs of letting the pandemic run freely. His question made sense when the government faced an indefinite choice between on-again, off-again lockdowns – potentially with diminishing capacity to support businesses – and adapting to the new world.
The reality is that the development of three promising vaccines means that this era of lockdowns will likely not last beyond the spring, and that the government can continue to use its borrowing capacity to support businesses until the pandemic is over. We now know social distancing will at some point end, so the argument that businesses should “adapt” to these new times, rather than be supported through a period of transition, becomes harder to justify.
Only one back-bench Conservative, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, Aaron Bell, seemed to grasp this new reality, asking the Prime Minister to call on the public to take heart from the good news and redouble their efforts to slow the spread of the disease until the new vaccines are rolled out.
The advances in the treatment of coronavirus are a product of two things. First, the generous financial support for emergency vaccination research programmes provided by global governments, for which Johnson can take some credit. Then there is the long-term support for research by successive British governments, for which he cannot (though Johnson can highlight the work of previous Conservative administrations in this area).
Past governments have claimed credit on more specious grounds than these for things that happened on their watch – the global fall in oil prices had nothing to do with David Cameron, yet he was happy to bask in the support of happy motorists in 2015. It is surprising that few ministers are doing the same now. Many back-bench MPs don’t appear even to have noticed the new vaccines.
This is a victory that feels like defeat for opponents of lockdowns within the government. They favoured an approach that has been rendered foolish by the scientific breakthroughs. Many cabinet ministers had privately convinced themselves that a vaccine would never arrive and that the pandemic was the beginning of a new and prolonged era rather than a temporary interruption. Hancock, one of the few to remain steadfast in his belief that a vaccine would emerge, had become an object of derision among many ministers.
Ironically, while the Health Secretary has become a figure of fun and Rishi Sunak continues to enjoy high approval ratings, it is the latter whose diagnosis of the crisis has been discredited. Chancellor Sunak wanted the government to take a much looser approach to lockdown and to begin winnowing down economic support packages: an approach that has now been made redundant by the vaccines.
The government’s mood is not victorious, partly because for many ministers declaring victory would mean adopting a Covid strategy that looks very different from the arguments they were making in public – let alone the yet harsher ones they were making in private.
The good news about the vaccine is such, however, that hasty moves to end lockdowns for Christmas, or to raise taxes before the economy has recovered, would do more harm than good. It made sense to prioritise a measure of normality around the holiday season if lockdown Christmases were a new and indefinite reality. It makes less sense if a return to the old world is closer than anticipated and the price of loosening up in December is a deadly January. Tax rises, too, are justified if the lockdown economy is here to stay. But if suppression measures will soon cease, increasing taxes makes little economic sense. The PM’s inability to convince the public he genuinely has some good news to give may well mean that he ends up delivering yet more bad news: a third and final spike in infections in the spring and a sluggish economic recovery thereafter.
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump