Covid cases are rising again. Has Boris Johnson learnt from his mistakes?

The PM’s track record suggests he would rebuff advisers when they urge him to go ‘sooner and harder’ on restrictions than he would wish

Andrew Grice
Tuesday 19 October 2021 16:30
Comments
<p>Boris Johnson has previously been criticised for responding too slowly to scientific advice during the pandemic </p>

Boris Johnson has previously been criticised for responding too slowly to scientific advice during the pandemic

To say that Boris Johnson has enough on his plate after his brief holiday in Spain is an understatement. He’s trying to set out a convincing “net zero” strategy, while putting pressure on foot-dragging nations to make detailed commitments at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, which is only 12 days away.

There are also real tensions to be resolved between him and Rishi Sunak ahead of next week’s Budget and government-wide spending review. Daily updates on the supply chain issues threatening the post-pandemic economic bounce-back. The unwanted, unexpected and painful task of speaking for the nation after the murder of David Amess – and urgent questions over the Prevent deradicalisation programme and social media regulation.

Another pressing issue is moving up the prime minister’s in-tray – the rise in new coronavirus infections, currently averaging 43,079 a day and at their highest level since lockdown. Cases are doubling every five weeks and this “exponential curve” is the warning sign the government’s scientific advisers watch most closely.

The UK is paying the price of its early success with its vaccination programme because the protection offered by the first two jabs is waning. Other European countries have overtaken the UK in the vaccination league table after catching up and immunising teenagers earlier.

Johnson will instinctively be tempted to scotch talk of his “plan B” being needed this winter, but that would be ostrich-like. Ministers and their advisers are increasingly worried a combination of Covid and flu could overwhelm hospitals. Although plan B is unlikely to involve another lockdown, it could mean bringing back an edict to wear masks in public places, urging people to work from home whenever possible and introducing Covid passports for nightclubs (as in Scotland) and possibly other crowded venues.

Such curbs would anger freedom-loving Tory MPs who, unlike their Labour counterparts, make a point of not wearing masks in the Commons chamber. The only people I saw wearing masks at the Tory conference were the staff serving them in hotels, bars, restaurants and the conference centre. Hardly a good example to the public when the country is not out of the woods and people should still behave with caution.

Perhaps many people are suffering Covid fatigue and, like Johnson, would prefer to think the battle has been won. I’ve been surprised how far Covid has dropped down the media’s agenda in recent weeks. However, the rise in cases is finally being noticed.

Johnson will probably take note of calls by Tory-supporting newspapers to apply his trademark boosterism to the vaccine top-up programme, which is proceeding more slowly than hoped. Tuesday’s Daily Mail asked: “Whatever happened to Britain’s jabs miracle? … The Department of Health and NHS must now discover the spirit and energy of the initial jabs campaign.”

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices newsletter The Opinion by clicking here

The epidemiologist Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, said it is “critical” the booster campaign is accelerated. But he provided some relief for Johnson by telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are not in the same position as last year. I don’t think it is a reason to panic now.”

Downing Street admits the next few months will be “challenging” but insists: “There is absolutely no plan to introduce plan B currently.” Johnson would do so only through gritted teeth. His track record suggests he would rebuff advisers when they urge him, as the chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance has promised, to go “sooner and harder” on restrictions than he would wish. And then he would impose the curbs belatedly, with more limited impact.

I doubt Johnson has learnt from his mistakes. The way things are going, we might soon find out.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in