Some claim that Ministers are the prisoners of SAGE – because of the former’s insistence that they are always guided by “the science” – but this site doesn’t share that view. Ultimately, Boris Johnson and his team are accountable to voters, must maintain public consent for their policies, have a Parliamentary Party to deal with (not to mention the rest of the Commons) and are due to face an election in 2024.
We view the Government’s five tests in that light and, without wanting to be too world-weary about it, saw them essentially as a holding device, while Boris Johnson was still absent, that would enable Ministers to shift just a little closer to easing the lockdown.
“Test One (“we must protect the NHS’s ability to cope” and Test Five (“we need to be confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelm the NHS”) are in essence the same. Again, they ultimately require a political decision,” we wrote.
This being so, it is hard to understand the fuss about the supposed change to that fifth test. It was never simply the avoidance of “a second peak”. If the number of recorded cases rises in the aftermath of a shutdown relaxation, as they will surely do, it follows that they will be higher than before that easing took place, and that there is therefore a second peak by definition.
So were the avoidance of a second peak a must for Ministers, the lockdown would presumably never be eased at all. But our link to Dominic Raab’s statement of April 17, when the tests were announced, shows that he said then what Ministers are saying now.
“Fifth, and this is really crucial, we need to be confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelm the NHS,” the Foreign Secretary declared. So the real question is not so much what the test says, but what it means.
That the Nightingale hospitals are largely empty has been well-reported. The Government will argue that this is actually a sign of success: that the NHS now has capacity to deal with the consequences of the virus that it didn’t have in March. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that the health service is therefore ready to cope with a second and further waves, because we don’t how how large they would be.
Boris Johnson hinted on Monday that he would set out the Government’s thinking on the future of the lockdown later this week. When he does, he needs to explain what his advisers’ range of expectations are for those waves, and on roughly what timetable the NHS would be able to cope with the worst-case scenarios. Until that is clearer, the future won’t be – with all the uncertainty for the NHS, the economy and voters which that implies.