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The reason Boris Johnson won’t end lockdown sooner

No. 10 is dismissing suggestions of speedier end to third national shutdown

Muddled government messaging during the UK’s Covid-19 pandemic response has been a constant source of criticism. But on the issue of whether Boris Johnson might fast-forward through his schedule for easing lockdown restrictions, Downing Street is being crystal clear.

Scientific experts, Tory MPs and even cabinet ministers yesterday implied that the third national shutdown could be lifted more quickly if national infection rates fall faster than expected in the wake of the coronavirus vaccines rollout.

But No. 10 has moved swiftly to “dampen suggestions England could accelerate through the four stages” of the prime minister’s roadmap, says Politico’s London Playbook. Downing Street “issued a firm denial overnight”, insisting that “it would not budge from the ‘no earlier than’ dates set out on Monday”, the site reports.

Set in stone

Despite the Downing Street denial, The Telegraph’s lead story today quotes a senior government source saying that encouraging results from the jabs rollout “would change the calculations” on when lockdown restrictions will ease.

Other government insiders also claim that the roadmap “could be accelerated if real-world data on the effect of vaccines is better than expected”, the paper reports.

Ministers are said to be “waiting to study the potential spread of Covid in secondary schools” after pupils return on 8 March, with fears of a subsequent rise in the R rate prompting “a cautious approach to unlocking shops, pubs and restaurants”.

An Imperial College London (ICL) epidemiologist whose modelling informed Johnson’s lockdown easing timetable told Times Radio yesterday that “if any acceleration is possible, it is only likely to be potentially possible in May - for instance, if we see continued steady decline in hospitalisations and deaths in March and April”.

Professor Neil Ferguson added that he was not “overly optimistic” about a rejigging of the government’s plans, however.

Despite that note of caution, “Ferguson has now been nicknamed ‘Professor Unlockdown’ in Whitehall as government aides scramble to shoot down his remarks”, says London Playbook.

Tory Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg has also deviated from the government line, claiming during his Moggcast podcast for Conservative Home that “governments always have within them a degree of flexibility”.

That verdict has been welcomed by the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs.

Leaping on the suggestions that the timetable could be adjusted, CRG boss Mark Harper tweeted a thread of perceived issues with the ICL modelling on which Johnson based the plan.

According to Harper, “some serious questions arise from the assumptions on which the modelling is based”. These assumptions include the possibility of the vaccine campaign slowing dramatically, as well as cautious predictions about the extent to which Covid jabs can curb infections and reduce hospitalisations.

But the growing clamour from disgruntled Tory backbenchers is failing to sway No. 10.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday “slapped down” suggestions that the restrictions will end sooner, the Daily Mail reports. 

Insisting that the PM was being “sensible and prudent” with his approach, Hancock told reporters: “Some people will say we’re going to be going too fast, some people will say we’re going too slow. We need to see the effects of each step, and that takes five weeks.”

Step by step

Johnson’s “data not dates” strategy is focused on two key issues: the speed at which vaccines can be rolled out and concerns over new Covid variants.

Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said yesterday at the government’s daily press briefing that “the more vaccines you can get out across people, the better it will be”. 

But he added that “it’s likely you get an increase in cases when you start to open up” and that “the sooner you open up everything, the higher the risk of a bigger resurgence. The slower you do it, the better.”

Vallance pointed to the example of Israel, which despite leading the global race to vaccinate populations, is seeing “an increase in hospitalisation amongst younger people” after opting to ease lockdown measures once older people were protected.

Explaining this seeming failure of the jabs, The Times’ science editor Tom Whipple writes that “the maths isn’t hard, but it is counterintuitive”. If 80% of the population are adults and 80% of those adults are inoculated with a vaccine that is 80% effective, he says, you have around 50% protection from Covid across the country.

“A really good take-up of a really good vaccine, in other words, still leaves a really large amount of gaps,” Whipple continues.

Those large gaps could provide room for further vaccine mutations, as “when a lot of people have been vaccinated and there’s also a lot of virus in circulation, that’s the point when the virus has the most chance of finding a way to infect the people who had previously been immune”.

To put that another way, “the greatest danger occurs at the moment of victory”, an unnamed minister told London Playbook, lifting a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte.

 And in this latest battle in the war against Covid, Johnson has chosen to be flanked by his scientific advisors while leaving sceptical Tory MPs far behind the lines.

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