Sat 17 April 2021

Jonathan Lis assesses the risk of the Government’s over-reliance on the vaccine roll-out and the Prime Minister’s politically-motivated ‘charter for freedom’

To read the headlines this week, you would think that the country had not lived through the past 11 months.

‘The end is in sight’, proclaimed The Times. ‘118 days until freedom’, blasted The Telegraph. ‘The wait escape,’ shouted The Sun – complete with a timeline identifying the 48 days until a haircut or gym workout; 83 days until indoor pints; and 118 days until full, pre-COVID-19 normality.

It seems that we have not just forgotten how often we have been here before, but forgotten what brought us here. This is our third national lockdown and both of its forerunners were promised to be the last. As Boris Johnson addressed the nation with his “roadmap for freedom” on Monday, very few seemed to recall that he had promised a route out of restrictions last April, promoted a message of “Super Saturday” and “Independence Day” last 4 July, and guaranteed everyone a normal family Christmas days before he cancelled it. The Prime Minister has only ever over-promised.

Certainly, some things are different this time. Vaccinations have transformed the long-term outlook and a definitive route out of the pandemic is far clearer now than last summer. But that does not make everything different.

This roadmap is not the easy stroll to freedom conveyed by the headlines. Johnson’s strategy – and its communication – is of the highest risk.

The Strategy

The Prime Minister’s address on Monday was peppered with the usual folly.

He described the route out of lockdown as “irreversible” – something he cannot possibly know, still less pledge. There was, too, a gratuitous jibe at those who would “stay in the slow lane”, as though people who still fear the virus are wimps. But the problem was less with his language than what he was describing.

Not everything in the roadmap is wrong. It makes sense to allow outdoor activities first, and to have a set period between each stage to measure how infection rates are developing.

Indeed, in some ways the rules are too cautious – meetings in private gardens should have been permitted long ago and outdoor gatherings at pubs could probably be allowed sooner. Museums should be able to open at the same time as libraries. And it is absurd that sex will still be illegal between non-co-habiting or casual couples for another three months.

But the problem is mostly excessive haste.

Hospitalisations are still almost at the level of the first peak last April but, in less than two weeks, all pupils will be back at school because Johnson has declared that “all the evidence shows schools are safe”. That is categorically untrue.

Plenty of scientists argue that schools are not yet safe: they are indoor environments, without full mask use, and make community transmission inevitable – not simply from children to teachers and other school staff, but between children, who will then carry the virus back to their families. That is not to say that schools should not reopen, but ministers should acknowledge the risk. In particular, schools are reopening before all vulnerable groups have been inoculated.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi somewhat gave the game away with a bizarre verbal slip in two successive interviews, declaring that schools were opening at the beginning of March because that was “three weeks after the middle of April” and the “one-dose protection to all over-50s”. Needless to say, that would necessitate schools reopening at the beginning of May.

The other problem with vaccines is that, by the Government’s own estimates, many young people will not be offered a first dose until July – weeks after it intends to reopen packed nightclubs. That could not only create a surge of cases in younger people – risking new mutations – but also dramatically increase the prevalence of Long COVID, which can profoundly debilitate young people even without the need for hospital treatment.

The Government is clearly over-dependent on vaccines, with the Prime Minister offering no insight into how he plans to improve the Test and Trace system before the summer, nor any updates on supporting those self-isolating. At this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, he misled Parliament by implying that a £500 universal payment, called for by Labour Leader Keir Starmer, was already policy.

The roadmap’s final key flaw is the Government’s vague tests for unlocking.

The first test simply specifies that “the vaccine deployment programme continues successfully”. The second and third tests refer to hospitalisations and deaths, and preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed. They do not refer to the number of cases, which is what leads to hospitalisations and new variants. They do not refer to the key metric of an ‘acceptable’ death toll, either, as though we ought to pretend that such a trade-off isn’t actually happening.

Some experts have concluded that the tests are not scientific but political.

The Communication

The irony is that the Government has been vague when it ought to have been precise and precise when it ought to have been vague. 

The Sun’s headline exposes the problem: a roadmap that was outwardly based on “data, not dates” has been explicitly marked with entries in the calendar.

Johnson did not have to specify the dates of 12 April for hairdressers and outdoor hospitality, 17 May for indoor gatherings, and 21 June for ‘normal life’ – he chose to.

Of course, those dates caught the public’s attention and, on social media at least, the milestone of 21 June has become an obsession. The fact that Johnson specified “no earlier than” before those dates was irrelevant – he either knew that those dates would become hewn in stone, in which case he was deliberately reckless, or he did not, in which case he was nakedly stupid.

The Prime Minister could easily have spoken in general terms, which would have made clear that these were general aspirations, not a concrete schedule. As we know from experience, the virus does not run to a timetable. But those dates cannot now be forgotten. Either we are fully unlocking by 21 June, come what may, or Johnson will yet again usher in public anger and disappointment.

Part of this is about human behaviour. If people hear a date, it promotes certainty over conditionality: we start planning and preparing for eased restrictions, build up our hopes, and potentially let down our guard as well. Cases are low, the weather is improving, and the Government has scheduled ‘freedom’ in a specified number of days. If something is shortly to be permitted, on an arbitrary date, why not now?

It is also unclear how any of this makes political sense. A timetable may now alienate everyone: normalising prematurely, which risks a resurgence of the virus and a fresh lockdown, or prolonging restrictions into the summer. Either scenario will invite bitter recriminations from newspaper editors and restless Conservative backbenchers, and further drain public trust.

The Fear of Hope

This is, of course, an occasion where we want Boris Johnson to be proved right. After a year of repeated setbacks, trauma and exhaustion – and being conditioned to expect the worst – the prospect of music festivals in July seems almost too good to be true.

The problem is that it might be.

This roadmap feels too premature, builds too many expectations, and risks undoing all of our hard work. Even with the vaccination roll-out, the Coronavirus could continue to spread. We have been in a cycle of lockdown and release since last March because we have locked down too late and unlocked too early.

In the end, the only thing worse than hope is false hope.

People need something to look forward to, but it should not be at the mercy of a Government which never learns from its mistakes. We cannot go to nightclubs in June, only to return to lockdown in September.

If Johnson really wants his roadmap to be irreversible, he needs to ignore arbitrary dates, newspaper headlines and Conservative MPs and, for once, focus on the virus.

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