What’s your plan if you are responsible for a new group of Conservative MPs, formed to campaign for a less restrictive approach to Covid-19 – and favouring the swiftest possible exit from lockdowns (which not all your members have always supported)?
Whatever it is, it must fulfil certain criteria. First, it must make demands that its 70 or so members will support – or at least not publicly oppose (a split must be avoided at all costs). Second, these should be a bit of a stretch for Ministers, but not actually be impossible to reach. Third, they should keep the group in the news. The Covid Recovery Group has become used to meeting all three conditions.
Before the present shutdown, its aim was to persuade the Government to publish a cost-benefit analysis of the effects of Britain’s lockdowns to date. Enough pressure was put on Ministers for them to publish a document, though not enough for them to issue one worth reading.
Fifty-three Conservative MPs voted against Ministers’ tiering plan on December 1, including the two main public faces of the group, Steve Baker and Mark Harper. That was the biggest rebellion on a Covid measure to date. But lockdown, vaccines and new variants changed everything. Only 12 Tory backbenchers opposed the present lockdown on January 7.
The CRG responded to shutdown as it was always likely to do: by switching from demanding a cost-benefit analysis to campaigning for dates by which lockdown would end and re-open. On January 17, Harper called for “a definitive plan to be published ahead of February 15, when we all hope the Government will have hit its first vaccination target.” – today.
That plan would set out a “progressive lifting of sanctions from March 8”. It has been fascinating to watch Boris Johnson try to steer a course between the CRG and economy-focused Ministers such as Rishi Sunak, and his SAGE advisers plus Matt Hancock and Michael Gove on the other – all the while trying to work out where “the science” and his backbenchers’ mood is.
Look back at the minor flurry he caused late last month, when he suggested that “we’ll be looking at the potential of relaxing some measures” before today. “A spokesman later admitted that the Prime Minister’s words could have been interpreted in two ways – that the Government might do something before February 15 or consider what to do before February 15.”
At any rate, the CRG lost over the publication of a plan by today, but appear to be winning over March 8 date – all other things being equal, such as the assessment he will be given by Public Health England this Friday of the effectiveness of vaccines in practice, rather than in trials.
As we write, the briefing is that primary schools will re-open that day, if not secondaries for exam years, if not all schools up and down the country. The mood inside government seems to have swung against tiering – and to favour restrictions being relaxed in the same way at the same time everywhere in England. But who can be sure?
The sum of the CRG’s latest demands is pubs and restaurants open by Easter; special consideration for outside sport and swimming pools, gyms, personal care businesses, care home visits, hotels and events industry businesses as soon as possible after March 8, and no legislative restrictions at all by the end of April.
Ministers are set to move in roughly that order, with people first allowed to sit with a member of another household; then permitted to exercise and socialise outdoors more fully; non-essential retail then opening, and pubs and restaurants serving people outdoors “later in April”. Indoor hospitality could open as early as May or as late as August. All this of course being subject to review.
The consensus of the Tory backbenchers that ConservativeHome rang round last week was for a start to be made by March 8 – which is going to happen anyway. The Prime Minister clearly has wiggle room at the moment, opened up by the success of the vaccine programme.
That could change. We are still at a relatively early stage for vaccination, even among the priority groups (15,062,189 people have received their first dose, but only 537,715 their second). The number of Covid patients being admitted to hospital is below its spring peak, but the number of them actually in hospital is still above it: the Government will be watchful of pressures on the NHS.
Then there is the nightmare of a deadly new variant, and the porousness of our borders: the quarantine plan looks open to problems from the moment people who have been tested positive for the virus arrive at our airports. Nonetheless, the amazing story of vaccine invention and distribution so far gives ground for hoping that however fast a variant runs, a vaccine will soon catch up with it.
The good news from last year is the late spring weather should reduce the virus in any event – if that recent experience is anything to go by. A less happy memory is that the first lockdown didn’t really start to ease until the beginning of June.