The instruction from Boris to his Ministers and scientific experts has been clear. ‘He’s said that when we come out, we have to be cautious. But what we do has to be irreversible,’ a Government official explains.
‘It’s not just that this has to be the last lockdown. When we lift every restriction, we have to be sure it won’t be put back. Schools. Shops. Pubs. When we reopen them we have to make sure they stay open. That’s not just the scientific imperative, it’s the political imperative.’
Tomorrow the Prime Minister will begin to unlock Britain. He will do so on the basis of a clear, evidence-based plan. He will proceed methodically and prudently and to a specific timeframe. And he will use the occasion to formally mark the beginning of the end of the nation’s long-lasting Covid nightmare.
Boris’s critics have three main lines of attack, all of which have been finely honed over the course of the pandemic
And he will do something else. When he stands up at the Dispatch Box, Boris Johnson will show his enemies – on both the Left and the Right – that he’s not going to be the Prime Minister they want and need him to be.
Boris’s critics have three main lines of attack, all of which have been finely honed over the course of the pandemic. That he is inattentive to detail, and rejects evidence-based governance. That he is a prisoner to his party’s most reactionary forces. And that he is a low-grade populist – a slightly down-at-heel Donald Trump tribute act. But that criticism is not going to survive contact with tomorrow’s statement. Or the lockdown removal strategy that will accompany it.
Firstly, because it will represent a clear and direct repudiation to those members of his party who have been demanding an overnight abandonment of every single significant lockdown measure. Last week, Mark Harper, chair of the self-styled Tory backbench Covid Recovery Group, said: ‘We think by Easter, after you’ve done [vaccinated] two-thirds of risk groups 5 to 9, you can sensibly open hospitality. It is a really key date.’
But Boris has decided to be ‘guided by data, not dates’. He has sided with Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other cautious Cabinet voices who believe a sustainable reopening of the country, rather than a mad dash for freedom, represents the best approach.
So tomorrow the Prime Minister will set out a clear series of ‘waypoints’, marking the moment another key lockdown constraint will be removed. But each will be preceded a week before by an analysis of key Covid indicators, including hospitalisations, case rates, vaccination rates and – what I’m told is the data point that will be most keenly watched by Ministers – the VOCs. VOCs are Westminster jargon for ‘variants of concern’. And these will dictate the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout, and in turn, the speed of the lifting of lockdown. ‘This is why we need to be careful,’ a Minister explains. ‘It’s not just about vaccination numbers, but vaccination effectiveness. You have to remember, it’s going to war against different strains.
‘And that will have an impact on how it prevents infection, how it stops transmission and how it prevents serious illness for those who still get infected.’ Again, this is not what Boris’s critics expect – or hope – to hear from his administration. Their caricature is of the unkempt dilettante bumbling his way from crisis to crisis. ‘I’ve said a lot about the incompetence of the Government,’ Sir Keir Starmer declared last week, ‘and I make no apology for that. They’ve been slow at every stage. They’ve ignored advice. They haven’t learnt from their mistakes.’
But Boris has learnt. The breezy boasts about shaking hands with Covid patients, or unlocking the nation for Christmas, have been replaced with a steely determination to use lockdown to squeeze the life from Covid, then unleash the vaccination barrage that will kill it off for good. It’s an approach that will not be popular with the hard-core Lockdown Deniers, or a significant minority of his own MPs. But it will again underline that while Boris feels comfortable resting his fingers on the nation’s pulse, he is not really a populist.
‘He knows we can’t unlock in a way that’s unsustainable,’ says a Minister, explaining why Boris has rejected the option of an instantaneous, headline-grabbing axeing of lockdown. ‘We just can’t afford to let this run out of control. People have been through too much.
‘We can’t give them things back, then slam everything into reverse. It would be like a kick in the teeth.’
Which doesn’t mean Boris has become a full convert to the brand of lukewarm statism being proffered by Labour’s leader last week. I’m told a big emphasis in what he unveils tomorrow will involve shifting from centralised pandemic control to a greater emphasis on personal responsibility.
Tomorrow’s biggest loser of all, though, will be Starmer. He gambled on Covid – and lost. He built his entire strategy on painting the Government’s response as incompetent
‘We’ve been using the law and fines to do the heavy lockdown lifting,’ says a No 10 insider. ‘But that’s going to change. The focus within Government is going to move to vaccinations and testing. At the same time we’re going to start talking up behavioural aspects of the fight. Practical advice, hands-face-space, and asking people to exercise good judgment and do their bit.’
All of which will further inflame – because it will further confound – Boris’s opponents. For the Lockdown Deniers, it will represent the moment they finally ran out of road. The claim there was no plan, no desire within Government, and no hope of ever lifting lockdown will have been exposed as the fiction it always was. It will also rebuff those within his party who believed lockdown would be the wedge-issue that provided the opportunity for a serious assault on his premiership.
It’s true that since the Election there have been times when the Prime Minister has struggled to find his focus. It’s equally true that over the summer he bounced from one hare-brained, whack-a-mole scheme to another, in a noble but futile attempt to keep the nation unlocked but the virus at bay.
The Scotch Egg rule will not be a high point of his time in office. But Boris has found clarity in the Covid end-game. He now has a clear route map, he knows which signposts to follow, and he understands the speed at which he can safely drive. There will inevitably be a few more twists and turns. But the destination is in sight.
Tomorrow’s biggest loser of all, though, will be Starmer. He gambled on Covid – and lost. He built his entire strategy on painting the Government’s response as incompetent. And the dramatic success of the vaccine rollout has destroyed it.
He banked on Britain blaming Boris for his failure to prepare for the pandemic. Yet the nation has broadly come to view the crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime event beyond the Government’s control.
He thought the events of the past 12 months would permanently taint Boris in the eyes of the voters. When in truth, a majority of them think he’s done a decent job in difficult circumstances.
Lockdown is ending. So are the hopes of Boris Johnson’s enemies that it would mark the end of him.