During the first coronavirus lockdown last year, a vaccine was the miracle cure somewhere over a distant horizon. Then scientists delivered the miracle at remarkable speed and the vaccine has been rolled out brilliantly by the NHS.
But the penny has now dropped for Conservative MPs: the vaccine is nothing like the all-conquering “scientific cavalry” Boris Johnson promised. The MPs are increasingly frustrated the vaccine has not slain the virus and allowed a return to normal life with no restrictions on personal freedom. They hate it when Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, warns that "this virus will be with us for the foreseeable future”. The truth is inconvenient. This grumpiness is fuelling the Tory revolt against vaccine passports – a useful target, merging the desire for a return to normality with their libertarian instincts.
Although Johnson is more prepared than he was last year to stand up to the lockdown sceptics, they still cast a permanent shadow over his shoulder. The result: he is not being as straight with the public as he should be.
The prime minister called a press conference on Easter Monday in the hope of reaching a big audience but his message was opaque. Wholly justified media questions about vaccine passports were batted away, telling journalists they were taking “too many fences at once”. A more honest sign of the government’s intentions came in its roadmap review, which said passports could be used in “hospitality settings” even though Johnson implied otherwise, and “could have an important role to play both domestically and internationally, as a temporary measure”.
Linking domestic and international use might turn into a cunning plan for a single Commons vote on passports, leaving some Tory opponents reluctant to be accused of voting against foreign holidays for their constituents. On paper, with more than 40 Tories opposed and Labour making threatening noises, the government could lose a vote on the issue, but the picture might look different if and when a vote actually happens in the coming months.
Johnson is “hopeful” foreign travel will return from 17 May, but by then only a few European destinations might be on the “green list” of countries not requiring quarantine on return, due to the third wave sweeping across the continent.
The prime minister spoke of a return to a “semblance of normality” by June, hoping both the public and his troublesome MPs would focus on “normality” rather than “semblance”. He could say his roadmap for lifting restrictions is on track; he has cover from scientific advisers who do not detect any risk in the first two stages of relaxation on 29 March and next Monday (12 April). But Johnson deliberately avoided any mention of the scientists’ warnings that a third UK wave is possible this summer after steps three and four, planned for 17 May and 21 June respectively.
Clearly, Johnson did not want headlines screaming: “Gloomy Boris warns UK faces third wave this summer.” He knew minutes of meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) were coming; it was more convenient to allow those Tory MPs dub “the gloomsters” to administer the unpalatable medicine.
Johnson might have learnt to trust his scientific advisers after seeing the high cost of his delaying the second lockdown in England last autumn. But his language this week shows he still does not want to master the art of delivering bad news. He hasn’t learnt from his costly reluctance to “cancel Christmas”, which was delayed until the very last minute until he U-turned on restrictions over the festive period.
It suits Johnson to play soft cop to the scientists' hard cops. True, the job of any leader in a national crisis is to keep people’s spirits up. But they need to trust the messenger, so the message must be crystal clear rather than mixed, as it was last year and still is.
This becomes even more important now that Johnson has a critical role to play in bolstering public confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine amid growing concern about a possible link with blood clots.
Although ministers always expected “bumps in the road” during the vaccine rollout, this development is potentially a huge roadblock that could undermine confidence in the whole programme and reduce the take-up rate. Ministers remain sure that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine vastly outweigh the risks. They were, of course, happy to bask in reflected glory while it was all going swimmingly – to the understandable private frustration of some NHS figures, who recall how politicians dumped on the dismantled Public Health England when they needed a scapegoat last year.
What goes around comes around. If the vaccination campaign hits real trouble, it will not be easy for ministers who have taken ownership of it to point the finger of blame elsewhere.