The Guardian Australia

Boris Johnson must remain fearful of the coronaviru­s, not his rebellious MPs

- Andrew Rawnsley

Spring is finally here. I know this because of the chorus of MPs complainin­g that they can’t get an appointmen­t for a haircut before May and lamenting that there are no restaurant tables available for a spot of plotting over an alfresco lunch. These will sound like nice problems to have in countries where Covid is rampant. Infection levels in India have leapt to a record high. Brazil is in a terrible place. Many of our neighbours in Europe are imposing fresh restrictio­ns on life as they struggle to avoid being engulfed by a third wave.

Britons are in the much happier position of seeing infection rates plunging. The number of daily new cases was approachin­g 1,000 per million people when Covid was at its most virulent in January. That has now fallen to fewer than 50 in a million. Boris Johnson has reaped a dividend, deserved or not, in an approval rating that has climbed back into positive territory. The reward for everyone else is tomorrow’s easing of restrictio­ns when hairdresse­rs, clothing retailers and beer gardens will be among the places permitted to reopen. The prime minister hails this as evidence that the “roadmap” back to normality is on track. The government wants to celebrate, but a wise one would do so very cautiously. To use my favourite Van-Tamism, they’d be extremely foolish to “tear the pants out of it”.

Previous releases from lockdowns have been accompanie­d by fate-tempting proclamati­ons that it represente­d “Liberation Day” only for the resurgence of infection to force the government into reverse. One of the overarchin­g lessons of this pandemic is that it is perilous to pronounce too confidentl­y about the pathway of this nasty disease and reckless to try to escape lockdowns too quickly. Ministers envisage the ending of the bulk of restrictio­ns by 21 June, but we should know by now that the coronaviru­s has absolutely zero respect for anyone’s plans and has a record of making politician­s and their promises look ridiculous.

The difference this time, and the main source of optimism that we won’t come out of the third lockdown only to end up in a fourth, is the vaccinatio­n programme. Impressive­ly efficient distributi­on means that more than half of adult Britons have now received at least one jab. While levels of vaccine-scepticism remain worryingly high in some communitie­s, general take-up has exceeded expectatio­ns within government when deployment began. Surveys suggest that more than nine out of 10 people want to be vaccinated. A mess has been made of some of the communicat­ions to the public about potential side-effects, a debate that has centred around the AstraZenec­a jab. Yet most people seem to be getting the essential message: the chances of suffering an adverse reaction are very slight compared with the dangers from either the disease or many other things most people do without anxiety. For the vast majority, the riskiest bit of getting vaccinated is the journey to the vaccinatio­n centre. At the same time, there is a growing appreciati­on among politician­s that the inoculatio­n programme is not a cureall. While efficaciou­s for most, vaccinatio­n does not guarantee protection

for everyone and about half the country still hasn’t had a shot. “Monday’s reopening should be OK,” says one person at the heart of decision-making, before adding the critical caveat “but a lot depends on human behaviour.” There’s the potential for infection rates to take off again if a lot of the public take it as a cue to dramatical­ly reduce compliance with social distancing. Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencie­s, recently published modelling which suggests easing will lead to a rise in infection. Scientists aren’t certain when a new surge will happen, but there is a consensus that there will be one.

In a worst-case scenario, things become as dire as they were in January, an especially wicked month for fatalities. Then there’s the spectre that causes the iciest shivers down the spine of Whitehall: encounteri­ng a mutation that is vaccine-evasive. “That would take us back to square one,” groans one senior Tory. Actually, it probably wouldn’t be quite that awful, because vaccines can be adapted to respond, but it would certainly be a massively demoralisi­ng setback. All this supports the case for a phased easing, leaving plenty of time between each step to assess the impact on infection levels before going any further while being prepared to stamp on the brakes if the disease gets out of control again. The scientific advice to unlock with caution has been the dominant influence on Mr Johnson since the new year, when he was finally forced to learn from his previous blunders.

But another group is competing for his attention. These are the selfdescri­bed “defenders of liberty” in his party. Along with their megaphonic allies in the rightwing media, they are again becoming clamorous for the government to toss aside the roadmap and rush the easing. When an inquiry into the crisis is eventually establishe­d, it will be beyond its remit to establish how much responsibi­lity these voices have had for the frequently calamitous handling of the pandemic. But I don’t think there’s much question that they have had an effect and it has not been benign. Their media wing has bellowed against restrictio­ns and badmouthed the scientists. Their parliament­ary wing has agitated, mounted rebellions and even threatened Mr Johnson with a leadership challenge. Whenever the anti-lockdown faction doesn’t get its way, it complains that the prime minister has been “taken hostage by the scientists” (ie is listening to expert counsel) who keep “moving the goalposts” (ie are responding to fresh data about a novel disease). Those who have been in the room when crucial decisions have been taken are in no doubt about the strong gravitatio­nal pull they exert on Mr Johnson.

Fear of the response from Tory MPs was a significan­t factor in some of his gravest mistakes, imposing lockdowns too slowly and trying to get out of them with dangerous haste. The noise they generate has waxed and waned in inverse correlatio­n with the death toll. When fatalities are rising, they go mute. Not much was heard from the let-it-rippers in January when the virus had been allowed to explode out of control because Mr Johnson followed their urgings by spurning the scientific advice to have a pre-emptive autumn lockdown. When death rates are falling, often thanks to the very measures that they fume about, they turn up the volume again.

Rebellious­ness among Tory MPs is being fuelled by the slow dawning that the vaccinatio­n programme, however successful, does not mean a complete return to the old normal. When Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, cautions that “this virus will be with us for the foreseeabl­e future”, these Tory MPs can’t stand it, not because they have any evidence that he’s wrong but simply because they wish it wasn’t so.

They have found a new issue to rally around in opposition to the idea of vaccine passports. These are surely going to be inevitable in the future for anyone wishing to travel abroad. It is their potential use on our own shores that is firing up a mutiny, even though the government has yet to say how a certificat­ion scheme might work or even announce any firm intention to introduce one. More than 40 Conservati­ve MPs have already declared they won’t stand for domestic vaccine passports, more than enough to defeat the government if all the opposition parties are also in the No lobby.

For some libertaria­n Tories, this is a genuine issue of principle. For many of the dissenters, it is just a stick with which to beat the government for not surrenderi­ng to their demands for a more rapid exit.

The volume of noise they generate, and the attention they receive, has always been unrepresen­tative of how much public support they enjoy. Polling has consistent­ly shown substantia­l majority support for lockdowns. Voters’ main complaint about the handling of the crisis is not that restrictio­ns have been too harsh or sudden, but too sluggish and too permissive. The Opinium poll we publish today finds a majority saying that they think restrictio­ns are being eased at about the right pace. Just one in 10 of respondent­s wants to go more quickly.

When he first set out his “roadmap”, Mr Johnson declared that Britain’s emergence from this lockdown would be “cautious but irreversib­le”. He was not in a position to make such a promise, but he stands a better chance of keeping it if he listens to the scientists and shuts his ears to the siren voices in the Tory party and the rightwing media who have lured him on to the rocks before.

 ??  ?? ‘The scientific advice to unlock with caution has been the dominant influence on Mr Johnson since the new year.’ Photograph: WPA/Getty Images
‘The scientific advice to unlock with caution has been the dominant influence on Mr Johnson since the new year.’ Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

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