Perhaps the most significant moment during Boris Johnson’s statement on the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown came when he was questioned by Paul Bristow.
The Peterborough MP asked the Prime Minister about the five week gap between each of the plan’s five stages. In sum, his question was: if the date on which each stage is due to begin can be put back, why can’t it also be brought forward? Why a rigid five week delay?
Johnson’s answer was that the five week gap is “crucial…For instance, we will need four weeks to see whether the opening of schools has caused an uncontrollable surge in the pandemic, and then a week to give advice and so on”.
This five week delay, which gives the plan its inflexible character, is in the Prime Minister’s view “dictated by the science” – and suggests that we were wrong yesterday to suggest that it might be relaxed if better progress than expected is made early.
Strange but true: lockdown sceptics (such as the 13 Conservative backbench MPs, including Bristow, who yesterday urged a faster restiction lift) have today been joined by none other than the high priest of shutdowns – Neil Ferguson of Imperial College.
“Hopefully what we’ll see when each step happens is a very limited resurgence of infections. In which case, there’s a chance we can accelerate the schedule,” he said on Times Radio. Number Ten insists that this won’t happen.
The sum of the Government’s view will be informed by figures that won’t be in the 60-page roadmap document: its estimate of death numbers, cases and hospitalisations if restrictions are lifted earlier (and therefore of the threat to the NHS’s operability).
The Prime Minister, his top quad of Ministers and SAGE will be worried about how high vaccination failure rates, the number of those unvaccinated and potential new variants could push those figures.
That anxiety was the sum of his answer to the Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, Mark Harper, who pointed out that groups one to nine in the Government’s scheme will have been vaccinated by the end of April.
These are everyone over 50 and those aged 16 to 64 with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to Covid. “Those groups account for 99 per cent of deaths and around 80 per cent of hospitalisations,” Harper said.
“So for what reason, once they have been vaccinated and protected from Covid by the end of April at the latest, is there any need for restrictions to continue?” Johnson reverted to his point that vaccination doesn’t necessarily equal protection.
You might argue that the vaccines need a bit of time to kick in, and that Harper’s date is say a fortnight premature. Or you may believe that the Prime Minister is right. Or that all restrictions should end now bar voluntary social distancing, masks and handwashing.
Or you may have a quarrel with details of the proposals. For example, the restriction on outdoor sports activity until March 29 seems Cromwellian.
Or you may think that some are already honoured more in the breach than the observance – such as the restriction on meeting outdoors with more than one person.
Above all, you may go back to Bristow’s point, and ask why restrictions can’t be lifted more quickly than explained if hospital numbers fall faster than expected.
We lean towards thinking that the roadmap journey looks on the slow side, but acknowledge that the calculations are not easy, and may change: essentially, they boil down to lives v livelihoods, and lives v lives, as they always have: cancer deaths, say, versus Covid deaths.
That’s assuming in this last case, of course, that the NHS is operating as normal, more or less. But the most pressing question isn’t who’s right or wrong. It’s who should take the decision – and how often.
Johnson confirmed to Graham Brady yesterday that there will be a vote on the renewal of emergency powers before Easter, which falls this year on April 4.
The Commons should also vote on these at least twice thereafter: at the end of April – which would give the House a chance to test Harper’s view – and the end of May.
Our best guess is that the Commons wouldn’t vote at any point to speed up the Government’s plan, since more Conservative MPs would vote with Ministers than against them, and opposition MPs would abstain at the very least.
But this is beside the main point – which is that the Executive should propose, the Legislature dispose, and that in this case there should be regular opportunities to test the will of the house as the facts emerge.
In that way, life would be breathed into the Prime Minister’s slogan of “data, not dates”. At the moment, we are being offered data – and dates maybe later than those given, but not earlier.
On one point, however, all can surely agree. It is wonderful to see so large a proportion of our vulnerable people being vaccinated so fast, due to good Ministerial decisions, scientific prowess and effective management.