How cabinet splits are delaying new Covid-19 lockdowns

Scientists are warning that new coronavirus measures are urgent but Boris Johnson must first convince Tory MPs.

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We face a “weekend of uncertainty”, Keir Starmer writes in today’s Telegraphas the government finalises details of its new tiered system of coronavirus restrictions, due to be announced next week, after the provisional plans appeared on the front pages of various newspapers yesterday.

The delay is for no reason other than political ones: the plans must accommodate Rishi Sunak, who is understood to have stalled progress by demanding further oversight over imposition of the top tier of restrictions, and must command sufficient support from MPs of all stripes, amid consternation over the 10pm curfew and its potentially dubious evidence base, and a wider frustration at how measures are being rolled out in the north with little consultation with local leaders. Polls indicate that the public support tougher restrictions; it’s his own MPs that Boris Johnson needs to convince if his plan is to pass through the Commons next week.

The need for action is no less urgent for the extra time the government is taking, however. Nadine Dorries, a health minister, has warned that intensive care units could be overwhelmed within ten days, while health officials are alarmed by new analysis indicating that hospitals in the north-west are “extremely likely” to reach the levels of the April peak before the end of this month. Sage is warning that there is no time to lose; every day makes a difference.

[see also: Why another 8.7 million people should now be under lockdown in the UK]

But, while political wrangling hampers the swift action needed from the government, there is a glimmer of hope. Sunak is set to announce the extension of the furlough scheme in areas affected by local lockdowns. In a statement later today, the Chancellor is expected to unveil plans to pay two-thirds of the salaries of workers from businesses that have been forced to close due to local restrictions.

Since the end of the national lockdown, the government’s economic strategy and its Covid-19 strategy could have been the work of two entirely different administrations, set by two cabinet ministers, Matt Hancock and Sunak, each fighting (as is right) for their own brief, overseen by a Prime Minister unable to make the two cohere (or under the delusion that he has). As the Chancellor prepares to unveil economic measures to underpin local restrictions, it might not be enough, but there is now at least a tentative effort by cabinet ministers to present a united front and a coherent overall strategy.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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