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Especially when you think you’ve beaten it, Covid-19 somehow comes back stronger. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but devoid of the charm, this terminator of a virus has an “I’ll be back” threat that risks undoing all the hard work of the vaccine’s impressive launch in the UK.
The epic battle between the vaccines and the virus certainly has a lot at stake. Perhaps that is why Boris Johnson sounded unusually nervous when he announced that he would actually postpone the “Day of Freedom” for another four weeks. Instead of the sunshine from Midsummer Merrie England, there was a blizzard of scary charts of planned hospital stays.
In his lines, the Prime Minister referred to “the adults of this company” (he meant “country”) and then incorrectly declared the new unlock date to be July 29 (later corrected to July 19). Polls show that the majority of the public are relaxed about a delay, but Johnson is aware that the 24% who are unhappy include several of his own backbenchers, and it has been shown.
Nowhere was this more telling than in his repeated assurances that the Freedom Day Mk II was the real deal. He is “pretty confident” that July 19th will be “the end date” (he also said “end date”). June 21 is always a “not before” date, while it is much firmer, he suggested. This wasn’t a defeat for lockdown skeptics, it was a victory, he seemed to be indicating.
That spin may or may not work for Tory MPs, but it could corner the prime minister for the first time in months. Since bending over to Chris Whitty’s and Patrick Vallance’s plan for a cautious roadmap, he has been able to fall back on their insistence that all four tests must be met (the new variant test was particularly smart) and that “data, not data” will guide his decisions.
But now that there is talk of “terminal” and fixed schedules, it seems that data, not data, is the new approach. Steve Baker, Mark Harper and Sir Charles Walker, who are likely to vote against the delay, have much more concrete evidence of a breach of trust should the July 19th date somehow slip again.
Whitty and Vallance gave invaluable assistance to the Prime Minister at the press conference. The chief physician in particular pointed out that even without the Indian variant, the restoration of the unrestricted mixing of “related households” indoors would always lead to an increase in the number of cases. He added that there must be a point where deaths shift from “averted deaths” to delayed deaths, like the flu.
Patrick Vallance even suggested that a lockdown beyond July 19 would be counterproductive. And he argued for this date, which contained the Goldilocks calculation, how hot or cold the roadmap mash should be made. Giving the 18+ their first trick and bringing the unlock closer to school holidays certainly added some sugar, as did raising the ceiling on wedding numbers.
Still, for Keir Starmer, the July 19th speech as the “deadline” is an opportunity for a judgment day on Johnson’s competence. If the vaccination program fails to sufficiently flatten the Delta variant surge, it is sure to reinforce its own line of scrimmage that Johnson’s failure to suspend flights from India is the real culprit. The Labor leader has already hardened his rhetoric that it is a “pathetic” border policy that has postponed freedoms.
Starmer’s clear goal is to drive a huge wedge between the excellence of the NHS vaccine introduction and the government’s broader mistakes. It is unclear whether it was the Prime Minister’s desire to keep post-Brexit trade talks with Narendra Modi alive that led to his inaction, but the suggestion that he ruthlessly undermined both the NHS program and public sacrifices is poisonous.
Today’s failure to provide additional financial support to companies has also increased additional political risk. Those firms that were at their fingertips now have to pay their share of vacation bills with no extra income to fund them. Add in the already disgruntled self-employed, and an opposition that was pro-entrepreneurial could step forward.
To overlook a Covid wave is a misfortune, to allow two starts like carelessness. But unleashing a third wave wasting all of the fine work of your own vaccine success story might be seen as unforgivable by a public who has so far been incredibly lenient to its prime minister.