Boris Johnson pointed to a way out of this new lockdown at the same time as leading us all into it. The “realistic expectation” is that everyone who is clinically vulnerable; all people over the age of 70; frontline health and social care workers and every adult and carer in a care home will have been vaccinated by “mid-February”.
“There remains a time lag of two to three weeks from getting a jab to receiving immunity,” the Prime Minister added. “And there will be a further time lag before the pressure on the NHS is lifted.” It may well also be that the mid-February target date is not achieved.
Even if it is, the best bet must be that most, if not all, restrictions will not be lifted until March. And the more Tuscany-type scenes there are in hospitals, the later their easing will come – and the more apprehensive the general public will become about anything like a return to normal.
It is claimed today that two members of the 2019 intake have submitted letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister to Graham Brady. We believe that such moves are going nowhere.
It is true that the Government has failed to prepare – as this site and others warned it to do during the late summer – for a mass move to online learning, and that Johnson’s U-turn on school closures can be added to the long list of reverses, late moves, retreats and failures that have marked this pandemic’s course.
Nonetheless, there are four reasons why MPs will vote for the lockdown tomorrow, and concentrate their fire not on championing an alternative policy, but on trying to ensure that the Government hits its target, or speeds up the timetable.
The first is the collapse of a different approach relying more on voluntary restraint. The vaccines offer an escape from a cycle of winter shutdowns and summer loosenings. The exemplar of an alternative policy, Sweden, has seen hospitals come under severe pressure, rising deaths – and has now tightened its rules. Above all, the new Covid variant threatens that Tuscan-style NHS collapse here.
The second is that it cannot truthfully be claimed that these further restrictions will come as a shock to Tory backbenchers. They are an inevitable consequence of the Christmas relaxation that many of them wanted and was very widely predicted (including here).
The third is that however bad the situation is in Britain it is even worse among our neighbours – especially within the European Union which we have just departed. As of yesterday, 1.39 people per 100 in the UK had been vaccinated. In Germany, that figure was 0.3. In France, it was, statistically speaking, zero.
The EU is consumed by a blame game about slow roll-out. Yes, we could have moved just as quickly had we remained in it. But, no, we wouldn’t have done – because had we stayed we would have proceeded at the same slower pace as other member states.
It would be pathetic to hug ourselves with the consolation that if our plight is bad that of other countries is worse. Nonetheless, a background of terrible news from our neighbours will help to persuade voters that the Government is to some extent at the mercy of events – like others abroad.
Finally, have a look at the polls. The Tory rating slid rapidy during the spring, has declined more slowly since, and stands now at the 40 per cent or so that has been its rough level, barring the period of the Theresa May collapse, for the best part of five years.
That blueish-purply coalition of voters may disperse as the Brexit drama fades, more normal times eventually come, and big tax rises with them – either quickly, because the Chancellor won’t want to implement them during the run-up to an election, or more slowly, because growth doesn’t come swiftly enough, and action must be taken, including cuts in the rate of spending, to reduce borrowing and debt.
Then there are the problematic Scottish elections in the spring. But for the moment, the Prime Minister looks better dug in than he was when the Brexit trade negotiation outcome was an unknown. And as ever, those polls show emphatic support for the lockdown.
Above all, Johnson isn’t one of those people who gets a kick out of telling other people what they can and can’t do. His policies aren’t always liberal, but his instincts usually are, and it’s a hallmark of his character to dislike restraint and constriction. Were he Prime Minister in these circumstances, David Cameron would be a bit head-boyish.
Theresa May, a Home Secretary by nature as well as background, would be very head-girlish indeed – the nation’s Chief Covid Marshall. The sense that Johnson hates the whole business is helping to carry him through it.