Boris Johnson’s winter Covid plan will owe more to luck than judgement

The PM would dearly love to announce that there will be no more lockdowns – but he can’t

Andrew Grice
Monday 13 September 2021 15:17

Sajid Javid ‘not anticipating any more lockdowns’ this winter

When Boris Johnson sets out his “Covid-19 winter plan” he will have some crowd-pleasing elements for his two key audiences – Conservative MPs and the public.

The vaccination campaign will likely be extended, with over-50s getting a booster and 12- to 15 year-olds their first jab. The other change that will most interest the public will be on international travel. Ministers intend to scrap the detested traffic light system; in effect, travel would either be allowed to specific countries or not. The expensive PCR tests for double-vaccinated people returning to the country will probably be ended.

Some emergency powers the government took under the Coronavirus Act will be repealed, such as the ability to close schools and businesses. Although this garnered big headlines in the Sunday newspapers, the reality is that ministers will still retain similar powers under the Public Health Act.

Vaccine passports for crowded events including nightclubs have been dropped in England (while the Scottish government is going ahead with them). But Tory backbench delight at Sajid Javid’s announcement of this on Sunday was quickly tempered by Downing Street making clear that the passports are still seen as a “first-line defence” against coronavirus in the winter. As they might well be needed, it would be better to deploy them now.

The confusion over vaccine passports, which ministers said last week were going ahead at the end of this month, sums up Johnson’s frustrating position on Covid. He would like to trumpet that the pandemic is all over bar the shouting and life can return to normal but, having burnt his own fingers badly last year by predicting the virus’s imminent demise, he cannot do so again. Privately, ministers fear a serious flu outbreak will put hospitals under pressure this winter; the flu vaccine will likely be much less effective than usual.

The goal now, rightly, is to learn to live with the virus. Johnson’s calculated gamble in lifting most restrictions in England in July did pay off. But cases are increasing, albeit not by as much as some scientists feared. The death toll in the UK is averaging 120 a day and on course to reach 200 by November. Hospitalisations are rising at an “alarming” rate. This is before this month's return to schools and offices has an inevitable impact.

Johnson would dearly love to announce that there will be no more lockdowns; reintroducing one would be a political as well as an economic catastrophe. But the current figures are a sobering reminder that he cannot make such a promise. He would also like to rule out a return to the social distancing rules that have inflicted so much damage to the hospitality sector. But again, he can only say they would be a very last resort. The other lines of defence, as well as the vaccine, would be a return to the compulsory wearing of masks and advising people to work at home where this is possible.

Relaxing the foreign travel rules will be popular with the public and the struggling aviation and tourism industries. But as with most Covid measures, easing them is not without risk. A freedom of information request has revealed that more than 300,000 of the one million or so people who arrived in England and Northern Ireland from amber list countries between March and May were suspected of not self-isolating for 10 days as required. Their cases were passed to investigators to carry out checks, but the government is unable to say how many were found to have broken the rules or could not be traced.

The disclosure has fuelled criticism that, despite ministers’ rhetoric about having some of the toughest border controls in the world, their policies allowed the Delta variant to spread. Scrapping the amber list could similarly weaken the country’s defences.

Johnson will be prepared to take such risks. He can argue his July relaxation has been vindicated by events (and even claim, disingenuously, that England would still be in lockdown if Labour were in power as it opposed the move). But the prime minister was lucky then. He will need to be lucky again this winter.

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