Covid-19 was a Groundhog Pandemic until late last autumn. There were no vaccines. There were no variants – in the sense of ones that, as “variants of concern”, were a present threat to the operability of the NHS.
Consequently, there seemed to be no escape from a cycle of winter lockdowns and summer loosenings, until or unless herd immunity was reached, or the virus blew itself out, or track and trace worked more effectively than it has ever turned out to do.
To a growing number of Conservative MPs, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock were becoming the Sonny and Cher of the Coronavirus – whose “I got you Babe” greets Bill Murray each morning on the radio as he wakes to the same day in the film.
And just as Murray repeatedly smashes the clock, his destruction of it becoming more spectacular each time, so the number of Tory backbenchers criticising the Government grew – their number in the Opposition lobby growing more sizeable each vote.
Peak Rebellion was reached on December 2, when 53 Tory MPs voted against the tiering plan. Some were lockdown sceptics in the real sense of the word – coming round to the view that, while lockdowns worked, they simply weren’t sustainable, as matters stood.
Others were lockdown sceptics in the way that Leavers were euro-sceptic: essentially, they were opposed to lockdowns root and branch. On ConservativeHome, the first view on Covid was that of the site, the second that of our columnist, Daniel Hannan.
His take was well represented in the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator – and among the leadership of the Covid Recovery Group in Parliament. To assert that it’s right is arguable. To deny it’s been in retreat is not.
The deployment of the vaccines and the arrival of the variants killed not just lockdown opposition but lockdown scepticism, too, as a force in Parliament.
On January 7, the number of Conservative MPs who voted against the third lockdown had shrunk to twelve. The Prime Minister was about to begin his long triumphal march through rising poll ratings to this month’s successful local elections.
Which has been frustrating for those lockdown opponents, both in Parliament and out. Mark Harper, the Chair of the Covid Recovery Group, has attempted to turn Johnson’s slogan of “data, not dates” against him – arguing that a faster opening-up is in order.
However solid his argument may be, it has fallen on deaf ears, at least among his colleagues. There have been few takers in Parliament for speeding freedom by a few weeks.
Now comes the prospect of delay by rather more. It is possible that the Government may bring back tiering in response to the so-called Indian variant of Covid. And probable that it will, rather, delay the return of “the old normal”, or something like it, on June 21.
To some lockdown opponents and others, what lies before us now looks less like Groundhog Day than the rainbow’s end – at which is the legendary pot of gold which, for one reason or another, no-one has ever got their hands on.
They fear that normality, like the gold, will never appear: cue conspiracy theory involving, variously, Bill Gates, the Rothschilds, Joe Biden, Davos and Michael Gove. Ok, we made that last bit up. (Actually, we probably don’t need to.)
But just because you’re mad, as the old saying has, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. There is a lobby which will oppose opening-up until the last compulsory state needle has been inserted into the last protesting, resisting arm – and maybe not even then.
Some argue that if you won’t get vaccinated, it’s your look-out: real life shouldn’t wait for you, any more than it does for those who delay flu jabs. Amen to that.
The difficulty comes if there are lots of people who’ve not had a chance to be vaccinated, rather than refused to be. It is the same consideration that undermines the case for vaccine passports this summer.
June 21, the date by which “the Government hopes to be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact,” in the words of the roadmap, comes before the end of July, the target date for the vaccination of all UK adults.
As we write, the consensus view is that the vaccines provide adequate protection against the Indian variant: how fast it is spreading doesn’t seem to have been pinned down.
It seems fanciful to argue that enough vulnerable people will be unvaccinated come June 17, and that the vaccines provide insufficient protection, or both, to expose the NHS to the risk of being overwhelmed during the coming summer.
Nonetheless, we’ve little doubt that public opinion, which has backed lockdowns against opponents, sceptics and anyone else throughout, would take a month’s delay on the chin.
This will be reinforced by yesterday, rather than June 21, having been the day when much opened-up. Though nightclubs are still closed, of course. And the hospitality industry can’t get back to normal while social distancing applies.
Might the Government carry on post-June 21 with “hands, face, space”, and all that – handwashing, masks, and a measure of social distancing? If so, that won’t be a depature from the roadmap: we must carry on with ‘hands, face, space’, it says plainly: see here.
It could be that there is another twist to this tale: that the vaccines turn out not to be able to cope with the Indian virus or some other strain, after all – though the consensus view, again, is that these can adapt.
But as matters stand, Rishi Sunak had a point. He has been routinely dissed for saying last autumn, before the vaccines and the variants arrived, that “our lives can no longer be put on hold” and “we must learn to live with [coronavirus], and live without fear”.
The Chancellor’s timing was wrong, but his view is right. The vaccines have sustainably lowered deaths and hospitalisations. By the end of the summer, every adult who wants a jab will have had the chance to get one.
Handwashing, perhaps; masks, almost certainly; social distancing, up to a point. These will stagger on for a while yet, as will some residual challenges – like managing large gatherings, in the short-term.
But in broad terms, we see no reason why a return to normality should be delayed beyond the end of July, though another mass vaccination programme will presumably be required before winter returns.