Why delaying “Freedom Day” won’t hurt Boris Johnson too much

Despite criticism from Labour and Tory rebels, the majority of the public support postponing unlocking for four weeks.

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Boris Johnson has delayed “Freedom Day”, the full 21 June unlocking, by four weeks, with coronavirus restrictions now due to end in England on 19 July.

The government’s reasoning is that, given the rapid spread of the Delta variant, a four-week delay will allow for a substantial increase in the proportion of adults who have been double-vaccinated: from roughly half of adults at the moment, to roughly 75 per cent on 19 July. The good news published yesterday is that both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are highly effective (96 and 92 per cent respectively) against the Delta variant after two doses, although less effective after a single dose. This means there is both a strong case for ensuring a greater proportion of the population has had both doses, and a strong case for optimism once that has been carried out.

But the government is facing attacks on two fronts this morning: from Labour, which has criticised the decisions that led to the spread of the Delta variant in the first place, and from rebel Conservative MPs, who have less and less confidence that 19 July will be the last day of restrictions. Their worry is that even if “Freedom Day” does arrive this summer, restrictions are likely to return in some form later in the year. It is not something that either Johnson or Matt Hancock has ruled out. 

The Conservative rebels are not, however, making much of the leadership or border policies that led to the Delta variant’s rapid spread. Indeed, Mark Harper, the rebel ringleader and chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, has been critical of tough border policies throughout the year, arguing in April that “even an incredibly tough border regime can, at best, only slow the transmission of viruses, rather than keep them out forever. At some point we will have to decide when we will allow travel to get back to normal.” He and lockdown-sceptic colleagues are simply arguing in favour of taking on more risk and accepting there will be more pressure on the health service, rather making a case for different policies to control or contain the virus, which might have actually facilitated a full domestic unlocking.

Labour, despite its criticisms, supports the delay, and the postponement to 19 July is backed by the majority of the population, in all age groups, and by a majority of Labour and Conservative voters. With disjointed criticisms from left and right, and overwhelming public support, this is not quite the political headache for Boris Johnson and his majority of 80 that some will have you believe it is. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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