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Boris Johnson’s great gamble

The Prime Minister’s plans for easing restrictions are cautious and sensible – but his erratic nature could yet lead to disaster.

 

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Britain has been in lockdown for the best part of a year, but in Downing Street the lockdown has never really been in place. That’s the complaint made by Conservative MPs who believe that those at the centre of government simply have no idea how difficult the restrictions are, socially or economically. It’s easy enough to chart a cautious path out of lockdown when you are still going into work every day and seeing colleagues.

And the Prime Minister’s plan for England, announced on 22 February, is cautious – at least compared to previous unlockings. The government has set itself four tests, on the vaccination programme continuing to go to plan; the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing deaths and hospitalisations; the impact of infection rates on healthcare capacity; and the risk posed by new variants. The reason Tory MPs are nervous is that while two of the tests – the vaccine’s effectiveness and the speed of its roll-out – are on course to be met, the impact on healthcare capacity is unpredictable, while the danger of new variants can never be entirely removed. In practice, avoiding these risks altogether would require a lockdown until everyone in the UK has been offered a vaccine.

There is a degree of truth to the claim that Boris Johnson is asking England to bear a lockdown that his own team are not experiencing. Downing Street hasn’t locked down to the same extent as other workplaces, partly because it simply wouldn’t be practical. As an official joked last spring, if the child of someone at the Department for Culture blunders into the room during a Zoom call, it’s cute. If the child of someone at the Ministry of Defence does the same, it’s treason.

But as it happens, Johnson’s conversion to relative caution in the pace and scale of the United Kingdom’s unlocking coincides with a tightening of the restrictions in Downing Street. While some people there cannot practicably work at home, many had grown used to going into work even when it was not wholly necessary. That was immediately obvious to Dan Rosenfield, whom the Prime Minister appointed as his chief of staff in November. Rosenfield proceeded to prune the list of officials and advisers who were allowed to come into the office. The decision has put several noses out of joint, and contributes to the mutterings that Rosenfield’s stay in Downing Street will be short.

[See also: The biggest critics of Boris Johnson's lockdown roadmap are on his own side]

Rosenfield is the only significant figure in Downing Street outside the civil service not to have a political link to the Conservative Party and he serves at the pleasure of a prime minister whose most striking quality is inconsistency. Having turned to a respected former civil servant with whom he enjoyed working during the London Olympics, Johnson might yet decide that the magic Rosenfield brought to the Games is less potent in No 10.

It is that inconsistency, rather than an ignorance of how difficult life is in lockdown, that is behind Johnson’s conversion to a more cautious approach to ending restrictions. It is true to say, as Conservative critics do, that England is due to unlock at a slower and more gradual pace than it did last summer, even though we now have working vaccines. That is partly because Britain is still counting the cost – both in terms of deaths and pressure on the NHS – of last year’s hastier easing of lockdown restrictions.

[See also: Why Boris Johnson must now announce a public inquiry into the UK’s Covid-19 catastrophe]

Johnson’s careful plan is, however, looser than the four tests might suggest. All schools in England, not just primary schools, will reopen on 8 March, and the impact that this will have on the number of coronavirus cases is unknown. (Scotland and Wales have opted for phased returns.) The coming of summer will help to keep cases lower, as activity moves outside, where the virus is less easily spread. But the government’s Plan A, to remove all restrictions by 21 June, assumes that the UK will be able to unlock further and faster than Israel, which has achieved a similar level of vaccination now as Britain will have by mid-June yet still has a degree of lockdown. These risks could be ameliorated somewhat if the government showed any willingness to compel businesses that can work remotely to do so, but Johnson has no appetite for this, and even if he did his party would resist it.

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Lockdown itself is a policy with costs. They are borne most heavily by schoolchildren, by people living alone or with strangers, by people who live far from home and by people without cars or gardens, but they exert a heavy social and mental toll on practically everybody. A hasty rush out of lockdown brings risks, but so too does an extended period of tight restrictions (something that is particularly acute in places such as Leicester and Greater Manchester, which have been under very heavy lockdown restrictions for most of the pandemic).

Johnson’s road map is therefore probably about right: it prioritises the needs of schoolchildren above all and allows the government to ease the country carefully out of lockdown. The problem is what happens if something goes wrong. The balance of opinion within the Conservative Party means that it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for Johnson to suddenly slow the unlocking if it cannot be completed by 21 June. While the date has been presented as subject to change, both the right-wing press and Conservative critics of lockdown have acted as if it is written in blood – and any attempt by Johnson to finesse it may well end with them attempting to shed his.

The biggest gamble that Johnson has made is not in the details of his plan – the five-week gaps between each wave of loosening allow the government to stop and take stock – but that the 21 June target creates a momentum that becomes hard to control. Minutes after it had been announced, the target, shorn of any sense that it might change, had been emblazoned on the BBC’s breaking news ticker, much to the delight of Tory lockdown sceptics. What the Prime Minister announced as a minimum target, some in his party believe they can turn into a maximum one: that whatever happens, lockdown will end on 21 June.

[See also: How the government got duped by the myth of “freedom-loving” Britain]

On its own, that need not be a problem for Johnson. Labour support for continuing restrictions, at least for as long as the vaccine roll-out takes to complete, is essentially guaranteed. The government’s caution is broadly supported by the public, according to the polls, with its biggest critics wanting a slower, not a faster approach. If Johnson does need to change tack, he will be able to.

But that will require attributes that Johnson has never shown during this crisis, or indeed in his career: namely, the ability to talk frankly and clearly in terms of trade-offs – for example, between the psychological cost of further lockdown and the deadly risk of new variants – and to run explicitly against the grain of his party’s prejudices rather than appeal to them. Like Boris Johnson’s chief of staff, the country is at the mercy of a prime minister whose most consistent attribute is inconsistency. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

This article appears in the 24 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks