“We had a national lockdown in November, and since early December, 99 per cent of the country has been under the heightened restrictions of Tiers Two and Three.”
“If this strategy was working at breaking the transmission of Covid, we would today be talking about areas moving down the tiers, or developing an exit strategy from repeated lockdowns.”
That’s the Covid Recovery Group’s take on yesterday’s announcement that London, and other parts of the South East, will shortly be moved from Tier Three to Tier Two.
The vote on the tiering plan itself at the start of the month saw the biggest Coronavirus-related revolt in the Commons to date, with 53 Conservative MPs voting against the Government.
And other Tory backbenchers who supported the Government nonetheless expressed anxiety and reluctance. A common complaint was of seats with lower Covid rates being locked down because others had higher rates.
Nonetheless, Matt Hancock didn’t get as rough a ride as he might have expected when announcing the new restrictions in the Commons.
In particular, there were no clarion calls for a radically different strategy, as there were during the debate earlier ths month. Here are five reasons why.
First, yesterday’s announcement was expressly to move London and some South-East areas up a tier. There will be an announcement later this week that may take other parts of the country down a tier.
The Health Secretary gave a particularly sympathetic response to Chris Loder, the MP for West Dorset; meanwhile, infection rates have been falling in parts of the North, especially the North-East and Yorkshire.
Second, there has been movement by the Government on taking a more “granular” approach – the main demand of those troubled backbenchers when the new tiering arrangements were approved.
Essex and Hertfordshire have been divided between Tiers Two and Three. That gives Conservative MPs outside the South-East hope that their constituencies, too, may find themselves on the more permissive side of a new line.
Third, Hancock’s report of “a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the faster spread in the south-east of England”, will have made an impact.
“There is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that it is highly unlikely that the mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine,” he said.
Fourth, the first Pfizer vaccinations, carried out about a week ago, has bolstered morale in the Parliamentary Party. It’s one thing knowing that vaccines are coming; quite another seeing their roll-out beginning.
Backbenchers will be no less agitated about the fate of pubs and restaurants in their seats – where the private sector is taking the bulk of the economic pain – but the vaccines at least offer the prospect of taming the pandemic.
Fifth, there is a sense that everyone else is in the same boat. The Health Secretary took a deliberate hit at a Sweden-type approach, saying that “nearly all the intensive care beds in Stockholm are currently in use”.
Indeed, some MPs are asking how it can possibly make sense to relax constraints over Christmas, only to see them tightened again afterwards – rather than attempt a less severe but more consistent squeeze.
Raghib Ali, though supportive of the tiering framework, has set out “an alternative strategy which may cause less overall harm based on the Swedish approach, but with much better protection of the vulnerable, especially in care homes”.
It made sense – but it makes more now to wind down the tiering system as the vaccine process winds up, rather than to tear it up at this stage, and try a new approach entirely.
MPs will get a second chance to debate and vote on tiering at the end of January, and should vote frequently thereafter. They will be less relaxed about policy if rising Covid cases are followed by a proposed third lockdown.
And analysis of the effect of lockdowns, restrictions and the virus itself? That must be part of the inevitable inquiry – with the power to unearth what estimates the Government has, not just those from elsewhere it has republished.