The vaccine news won’t stop the ‘health vs economy’ debate – giving Boris Johnson a headache

Despite the burst of sunshine, it is still going to be a long winter for the PM

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 11 November 2020 14:50 GMT
How does the Oxford vaccine differ to Pfizer’s?

The breakthrough on a coronavirus vaccine is wonderful news. It is a long time since the front pages and bulletins have been dominated by something positive for two days running, with more to come.

However, the good news will not resolve the “health vs economy” argument among our politicians and their expert advisers. 

Indeed, it will merely intensify it. When the vaccine is rolled out, it is dawning on ministers that there will be a new dividing line: between those who want to lift the restrictions quickly to revive the economy and a more cautious "health first" group worried that a premature lifting would create a spike in infections and third lockdown in England.

Boris Johnson’s problem is that Tory MPs are increasingly in the "economy first" camp. So is Rishi Sunak, amid rising tensions between 10 and 11 Downing Street. Sunak blocked a two-week circuit breaker in September when it was proposed by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). Last week, the prime minister bounced his chancellor into extending his furlough scheme to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in future lockdowns.

Despite the palpable relief in government about the vaccine, in the short term Johnson’s room for manoeuvre is limited. Whatever the data shows at the end of this month and his scientific advisers recommend, it would be very difficult politically for him to extend the lockdown in England beyond 2 December because of opposition from Tory backbenchers. 

Today it emerged that about 50 of them have formed a Covid Recovery Group.They fear the prospect of a vaccine will encourage a “remain in lockdown” culture until a significant section of the population has been vaccinated, which could be well into next year. Some MPs want younger adults given greater priority when the vaccine is rolled out to boost the economy. On current – but still to be confirmed plans – it will be extended down the age groups, starting with care home residents and staff, followed by NHS workers and the over 80s. Another sign that the health vs economy divide will not go away.

Johnson’s Tory critics want decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. The government has been vague about the economic impact of restrictions, which Sunak worries about. They claim the cure could be worse than the disease, and want to end the “monopoly of advice” held by the scientists. These Tories believe the restrictions are based on dodgy data, noting that some it has changed since the lockdown in England was imposed.

Indeed, some MPs even claim Johnson regrets being bounced into the second lockdown by a leak, saying that if he could rewind the video, he  would stick to the previous regional and local approach. England will likely return to that on 2 December, perhaps with some simplifications so that whole regions are in the same tier. Johnson, of course, is now stuck with his lockdown decision, and can’t admit he got it wrong. That would only bemuse the public and add to the sense of incompetence at the top, just when Johnson can be cautiously optimistic about the vaccine.

One or more vaccines won’t ensure a return to normality on their own; a successful expansion of mass testing will be crucial in ending the restrictions. They won’t mean a return to normality anytime soon, and won't magic away the second wave.

Ministers are privately worried that compliance with the rules will fall as people think what Johnson has called “the cavalry” will soon ride to the rescue. That was why a prime minister who specialises in bouncy optimism and loves to announce good news put himself in a straitjacket and gave a such restrained welcome to the breakthrough on Monday, and reminded people to stick to the rules.

Nor will vaccines set Johnson free with one bound. A lot of difficult decisions are piling up in his coronavirus in-tray, and that’s before crunch time on Brexit and Joe Biden’s arrival on the scene. The regime of local restrictions from 2 December. 

Should there be a new tier 4 which in effect prolongs the lockdown in hotspots like the northwest? Would that reignite the north-south tensions that are damaging the Tories when they need to retain their new working class supporters?

Johnson will have to say something soon about Christmas because families want to plan for the festive period. A nationwide rule of six for a few days? Should children be included? What to do about new year? What about a planned family gathering of seven when the grandparents are included? Then there’s the need to reach agreement with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to prevent chaos for families.

Despite the rare, welcome burst of sunshine, it is still going to be a long political winter for Johnson.

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