The next few weeks in politics will be dominated by the 19 July reopening, and whether hospitals can cope with the coming increase in the number of patients. But, as I say in the magazine this week, if the lifting of Covid restrictions is successful, then attention will turn to the various backlogs that have built up during the pandemic, most notably in education, the NHS and the justice system.
These backlogs will cause all sorts of political problems for the government. Those affected by them will want them cleared with urgency. But there are both capacity and financial constraints to how fast they can be dealt with. One cabinet minister predicts that the public will become so irritated by the government’s failure to sort out these backlogs that it will lead to a Labour revival in the polls and the Tories will fall a couple of points behind.
The resignation of school catch-up tsar Kevan Collins last month over the government’s failure to fund his proposed plan was a preview of the arguments to come. The NHS waiting list, though, will be a much bigger problem, both logistically and politically. It is already more than five million long and it will grow as more people come forward to seek care. In Whitehall, it is believed that one in four households will have someone on the waiting list by the autumn.
The danger that a long NHS waiting list poses for the Tory party is obvious. Labour would rush to claim that it was proof that you can’t trust the Conservatives with the health service. Having sought to turn themselves into the high priests of the national religion, the Tories would be left trying to explain why they were struggling so badly to get this backlog cleared — especially since the new Health and Social Care Bill going through parliament gives the government more direct control over the service.
Even if the 19 July reopening does prove to be irreversible, the Tories should not expect the political feel-good factor to last long. The conversation will quickly move on to the other problems that have accumulated during the past 18 months. The question Johnson will have to start answering in the autumn is: what do you intend to do about them?
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