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.”
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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.
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