Now what? The government’s Covid optimism is fading fast

The government’s Covid optimism is fading fast

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

When the news broke on Sunday morning that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak planned to skip self-isolation — availing themselves of a loophole — the reaction was as much disbelief as fury. Could the Prime Minister and Chancellor, even for a second, think it right to excuse themselves from the Test and Trace regime that they have imposed on millions? They changed their minds (after just a few hours) but it raised wider concerns in the party: what on earth were they thinking? And is this typical of the quality of decision-making we can expect ahead of a tricky few weeks?

Of course they both had other plans in mind for so-called ‘freedom day’. By this point in the roadmap, the hope was the virus would be in retreat and the UK heading towards a ‘great British summer’. Ministers were counting down to their holidays while Johnson had spent the past few weeks focused on returning to his post-Covid domestic agenda with an underwhelming ‘levelling up’ speech, along with plans for a social care announcement to mark his two-year anniversary as PM. Now that has been delayed, likely until autumn. Perhaps later. The Covid crisis has not gone away.

‘A lot of people in government are bored of the pandemic now but we don’t have a choice,’ says one minister. Neither will the 4.5 million people forecast to be pinged between now and 16 August, when the double-jabbed will be exempt from self-isolation. It adds up to a summer of political dysfunction.

There is unease in Westminster about the next few months — and whether Johnson’s team is up to the task. No. 10 aides find themselves between a rock and a hard place: facing flak from scientists and Labour for easing too many rules and from their own side for not relaxing them enough, especially the self-isolation guidance.

Government departments are split on which is the bigger threat: the virus or the ‘pingdemic’. Business minister Paul Scully suggested in an interview that the Test and Trace app was ‘advisory’. No. 10 hit back, saying that it is ‘crucial’ people self-isolate when asked.

‘The situation is bonkers,’ complains a Tory MP. But with so many restrictions lifted, No. 10 is reluctant to relax self-isolation guidance: it is now viewed as the last line of defence. The initial optimistic language of an ‘irreversible’ roadmap has been traded for promises of further action if needed. There is already talk of restrictions returning by the autumn if cases outpace government modelling and hospitalisations climb to a higher level than anticipated.

The problem is that there is growing concern over how the current operation will handle choppy waters. ‘The self-isolation fiasco sent alarm bells ringing,’ says a member of government. ‘The Prime Minister isn’t listening to anyone,’ claims an official. After a series of departures from Downing Street, there is concern that his current chief of staff Dan Rosenfield lacks the political nous to guide the Prime Minister, and is walking into trap after trap — the decision to allow Uefa officials and foreign VIPs to skip quarantine to attend the Euros being another.

Suddenly announcing a new, vaccine-only passports system for nightclubs from September has gone down like a cup of cold sick with backbenchers. As the MP for Workington, Mark Jenkinson, put it in a WhatsApp message to his colleagues: ‘What fresh hell is this?’ ‘They’ve managed to unite clubbers and Tory MPs around a common cause,’ says one government figure. The government vs the young, just in time for summer: what could possibly go wrong?

‘My colleagues had very high expectations of what freedom day would look like,’ says one member of government. ‘Everyone has gradually been enraged by the many restrictions.’ For Johnson, the end of the roadmap has brought with it more political problems than solutions. His new-look No. 10 is about to face its toughest test yet.

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