It is a sign of our times that the only live theatre currently available is that staged by politicians. Boris Johnson will tomorrow unveil his “roadmap” for easing out of coronavirus restrictions, a moment that is being fanfared as a big, dramatic event. The journey planner will be shown to the cabinet on Monday morning and then presented to the Commons before a prime ministerial news conference in the evening.
I can’t tell you exactly what will be in the document, because it is still being wrangled over within government as I write. At this juncture of the crisis, as at every similar one, cabinet ministers are making last-minute special pleas to have the plan amended to advance one client group or another up the list of priority areas for coming out of restrictions. My conversations suggest that the plan is likely to be heavily hedged and highly tentative. The title “roadmap” will invest it with more solidity than it will truly possess. Anyone yearning to know when precisely they will be permitted to go to the pub, visit the cinema or holiday abroad will be disappointed.
Let us hope so, anyway. It will be time to be alarmed if the prime minister breezily flourishes a roadmap that is dangerously confident about when all of the lockdown will be lifted. He has taken that hairy highway before by racing to ease restrictions only to put the country in a ditch of surging infections, intense pressure on the health service, escalating fatality rates and increased damage to the economy. The nadir was in early January when schools were reopened, only for ministers to be impelled to tell them to shut again on the very same day.
The successful start to the vaccination programme is encouraging expectations that some kind of end to the crisis is at last in prospect. That is a boost to national morale. It is also a political fillip, deserved or not, for the prime minister. At the same time, it presents a challenge in managing both public opinion and his own party. He needs to keep the hopes aroused by the vaccination programme contained within the boundaries of prudence. It also presents those trying to advise the prime minister with a challenge of their own. That is how to stop him surrendering to the anti-lockdown libertarians on the Tory benches and succumbing to his own innate yearning to proclaim the crisis over by promising another perilously rapid reopening.
For the greater part of the coronavirus crisis, expectations management is one of the things at which Mr Johnson has been especially dreadful. He repeatedly made baseless promises that excited false hopes about how quickly the virus could be squashed. He became addicted to offering bogus prognostications about when the crisis would end. Last March, he was telling us “I’m absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing” and added the claim “we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks”. It was going to be beaten by the summer, then by the autumn, and then in time to “save Christmas”. The raising and then crushing of expectations that the nation could have a near-normal Christmas was especially dismal.
Since that debacle, the prime minister has given some impression of a man who is trying to learn from his mistakes. “What’s really interesting is that Boris has gone all cautious – which is really welcome,” says one former Tory cabinet minister of the careful tendency. There’s also a bit of evidence that Mr Johnson is learning that results, not rhetoric, are what matter when battling a virus which is beatable by science, but not by his bluster. Last week the government met its target for delivering the first 15m vaccinations and did so a day ahead of the original schedule. Some allies of the prime minister report that he has slowly grasped that it is better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way round.
Yet it is also clear to anyone who has observed his recent public performances that he finds it a constant struggle to sustain the new, more disciplined public persona that has been on display since he was forced to put the country back into lockdown after the turn of the year. He lapsed back into crass comedy when he cracked a joke about OJ Simpson during a recent visit to a vaccination centre. His syntax can get tortured when he tries to suppress his instinctive boosterism. After retailing so much false hope in the past, his latest formula is that exit from this lockdown must be “cautious but irreversible”.
We can see why. After the first lockdown, he declared that a second would be “a disaster”. Only to be compelled to impose a tier system that became a second lockdown in all but name, which was followed by the third lockdown that the country currently endures. Cabinet members report that the prime minister is absolutely desperate to avoid a fourth.
“The public were pretty understanding of the first and second lockdowns, but less forgiving that we have had to go into a third,” says one senior Tory. “The obvious political calculation by Boris is that a fourth lockdown would be disastrous for him – possibly even terminal.”
That has made him more receptive to the counsel to ease with great care that he is receiving from Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser. The two men have had to endure some torrid periods during the crisis, notably last autumn when the unrepresentative, but noisy, libertarian faction of the Tory party and their allies in the rightwing press were beating up the senior advisers for correctly forecasting that the virus was getting out of control. The monikers “Dr Doom” and “Professor Gloom” were the least of a campaign as vicious as it was ignorant to try to discredit them. The advisers have since had the vindication, albeit a grim one measured in the wave of fatalities that they warned was coming, of being proved right. The let-it-rippers, liberate-us-nowists and other varieties of anti-lockdowners have had repeated experience of being on the wrong end of the argument, but that has not stopped them from shouting as loudly as ever. The self-named Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers and their media megaphones are as clamorous as ever for the lockdown to be lifted to a timetable of arbitrary dates of their inexpert choosing.
They still exert a gravitational pull on a prime minister who would probably be one of them himself if he were a Tory backbencher, but there are some indications that their baleful influence on Number 10 is weakening. “The success of the vaccination programme has given Boris enough political space to face down the extreme libertarians,” remarks one senior Tory. The prime minister appears to be less resistant to taking scientific advice, even when it isn’t what he wants to hear, than he was a few months ago. He has lately adopted the mantra, one originally minted by the scientists, that decisions about easing will be determined by “data not dates”.
During the preparation of the roadmap, Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick have impressed on the prime minister that any kind of easing will inevitably lead to some increase in the levels of infection. This recommends a gradualist approach of relaxing restrictions in a phased way which allows sufficient time after each step of easing to measure its impact on infection levels before deciding whether to take the next step. A person highly familiar with discussions inside government reports that “don’t go into things blind” has been the consistent advice of the senior scientists.
The government is amassing a lot of quality data, but there are still some critical uncertainties. The precise efficacy of vaccines in reducing transmission is still to be determined. Another area of doubt is whether the impressive pace of the inoculation programme can be sustained. The biggest unknown is about mutations of the virus. There are now believed to be around 4,000 variants in circulation around the world. One close observer of the government’s decision-making remarks: “We have to be very careful until we know that we are not going to encounter a variant which we can’t control with the vaccines currently available.”
When he unfolds his roadmap, it will be natural for many to hope that the prime minister is going to tell them when the crisis will be over. He can’t do that. If he is honest with the public, he will stress that there is no quick, easy or assured escape back to normality. He will eschew the calamitous over-optimism that has been his trademark for much of this epidemic. The country will be best served if Boris Johnson acts out of character.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer