As Boris Johnson prepares to announce a four-week delay to the final stage out of lockdown, he faces a mixed reaction. Labour plans to back the delay but make clear that it was avoidable and is down to bad leadership. The public is seen to be more forgiving — with a Times/YouGov poll over the weekend finding that 53 per cent think that restrictions should remain beyond 21 June, compared with 34 per cent who say they should end. Many Tory MPs, meanwhile, are opposed to the delay on the grounds that they are losing faith all restrictions will be lifted this year.
Suggestions by ministers out on the airwaves that they cannot guarantee restrictions will be lifted after the four week delay are causing unease as to where this is all heading. As 1922 committee vice-chair Charles Walker put it this lunchtime on Radio 4’s World at One: ‘If you can’t lift restrictions at the height of summer then you’re almost certainly looking at these restrictions persisting and tightening into the winter’. This is increasingly the fear among Conservative backbenchers and some ministers: that even if ‘freedom day’ does go ahead this summer, that some restrictions return in the autumn if variants, or even a particularly bad flu season, mean that the NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed.
The fact there is already talk in the summer months of NHS pressure if Covid hospitalisations go up even slightly suggests that similar arguments will be made more regularly in the months ahead. For now, ministers are hopeful that there won’t be much of a backlash to a lockdown delay — and that vaccines will offer a clear cut route out of lockdown. The argument goes that so long as things are relaxed by the summer holidays, there will be little in the way of political pain. Johnson and his team have heralded vaccines as the way out. If, despite the pace of the vaccine programme, the pandemic continues to dominate the news — and people’s daily lives — for months and months to come, there could still be some political pain for the Prime Minister down the line.
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