First things first: the consistent aim of the Government’s Coronavirus policy has been to prevent the collapse of NHS – with patients dying on hospital trolleys; or being turned away from A & E; or “dying their beds alone at home, some of dehydration and starvation alongside their pneumonia, with no palliative care of any kind”, as Sam Bowman has put it.
To date, it has been successful. (We leave the question of why for another day.)
Boris Johnson is therefore unlikely to authorise a sudden end the lockdown, thus risking a second wave of the virus – and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as the health service finally buckles.
The capacity of the NHS to cope is therefore set to continue as the main metric by which Ministers will make a judgement about gradually easing off the lockdown. Some will say that the measure will be when the daily death number begins to fall steadily. Others will point out that this is a lagging indicator, and that hospital admissions would do better. There are other possibilities.
But the political reality is that the durability of the NHS will be the ultimate test. Anyone who doubts it should revisit the Prime Minister’s remarkable broadcast.
Furthermore, the Department of Health has an institutional interest in taking a cautious view. All of which suggests that those arguing for an immediate end to the lockdown are wasting their sweetness on the desert air.
None the less, it doesn’t follow that because the shutdown is set to stay put, for the time being, Ministers shouldn’t be preparing to wind it down, when the time comes.
On that front, this site has better news to report. When we asked a week ago: “what’s the Government’s strategy for ending the lockdown?” the only answer we could then find was: “there isn’t one”.
Since when, things have got better. (Or “a bit better”, as one Minister cautiously put it.) Departments are currently feeding ideas for ending the parts of the shutdown that most directly concern them to the centre.
A team from Number Ten and the Cabinet Office will then sort through the proposals, take up some, reject others, refine still more, mull ideas from elsewhere – and draw up a grid for action.
We expect primary schools to open their door to pupils relatively early, and big events – such as Premier League Matches, say – to open their gates to crowds relatively late. In between, Ministers must decide whether to allow a return to work by age, region, occupation or some mix of all of them – and under what circumstances further lockdowns would be ordered, if at all, in the event of that second wave or further ones.
This brings us to how the politicians will consider whatever this Cabinet Office/Number Ten team comes up with. Which takes us in turn to the Prime Minister.
If he’s out of action for only a fortnight or so, we’d expect this instinctive lockdown sceptic to take the relevant decisions, having consulted “the four horsemen” – Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove (who is responsible for the Cabinet Office, after all), and Matt Hancock.
If he can’t come back for longer, then he will presumably delegate that power to Raab, who will want to be absolutely sure that, in such an event, he has got the other three horseman lined up beside him.
ConHome hears that the Prime Minister is already in touch with senior Ministers. In one sense, that’s a good thing: the Government needs his drive, authority and gift for communicating messages to the public. In another, it may not be so good, since he plainly won’t be able to take up the reins of government immediately.
Next week, the Scientific Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is set to probe at what point the costs of the lockdown might clearly outweigh the benefits.
Whatever it decides, our best guess that there won’t be even a symbolic lifting of the shutdown until at least mid-May – and probably later, if the Government continues to make the functioning of the NHS its main objective.
Either way, though, Raab or Johnson or the former acting with the latter’s blessing will need to get a move on with getting those lockdown end plans into final shape.