When Boris Johnson returned after his serious brush with death from coronavirus, his allies encouraged political journalists like me to believe the experience had converted him from a lockdown sceptic to a “health first” advocate. So I was surprised when Dominic Cummings told MPs last week that the opposite was the case; despite his spell in intensive care, he said, Johnson regretted being bounced into the first lockdown and was determined not to “make the same mistake again”.
I can see why it suited Downing Street to portray Johnson as a dove rather than what Cummings described as “in complete let-it-rip mode”. It insulated the prime minister against some of the criticism levelled at him when he delayed a second lockdown last autumn. That mistake fits more with Cummings’ version of events rather than the No 10 spin.
Now we are about to find out whether Cummings is right. After no deaths from coronavirus in the UK were reported yesterday for the first time in the pandemic, Johnson is under mounting pressure from Tory MPs and business to lift England’s remaining social distancing restrictions as planned on 21 June. But he has a familiar dilemma; some scientists want him to delay the move for at least two weeks because of the rising number of cases of the Indian variant.
Johnson wants to wait for the most up to date statistics before announcing his decision on 14 June. The problem is that even then, his scientific advisers might still want to see more data on hospital admissions and vaccine effectiveness to be sure about the danger from the Indian variant.
The usual band of noisy Tory MPs are telling Johnson to “trust his instincts”, which suggests they think Cummings is right about his former boss. They, and some Johnson aides, are annoyed by an “organised campaign” by scientists to delay lifting curbs, claiming they would remain until the autumn. Never mind the “organised campaign” by lockdown sceptic backbenchers and Tory-supporting newspapers.
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, complained that "nervous" scientists are "peddling assumptions that are what-ifs based on what-ifs" and “back of an envelope” calculations. That would be the same scientists who correctly predicted a second wave last year and now fear a third one if Johnson gets his big decision wrong.
For now, the prime minister is again trying to have his cake and eat it. Although Nicola Sturgeon has paused the relaxation process in parts of Scotland, Johnson says he has not yet seen any evidence warranting a departure from his road map but also concedes “we may have to wait”. So he can refer back to either of those statements when he makes his difficult call, and tell us: “As I have always said …” That’s what politicians do when they are saying something important but try to pretend it is not new.
Although no decision has been taken, some Whitehall insiders expect not cake but a fudge under which Johnson will trumpet the lifting of most remaining restrictions but keep some of them. There are plenty of options in the mix to cook up such a fudge, including mask-wearing; the advice for people to work at home where possible; the number of people allowed to meet indoors and attend large events; the one-metre plus rule and table service in pubs.
The right approach would be to be driven by “data not dates”, as Johnson has promised, and to push back the 21 June milestone for two weeks. That would provide precious time for all over-50s to be offered two jabs and enjoy vaccine protection about two weeks later, as well as more data.
There’s little doubt that Johnson would love to “cry freedom”, not least because 21 June has been etched in people’s minds for months. Yet the decision should not be based on political expediency; Johnson should remember that, despite all the pent-up frustrations, many people remain at the doveish end of the spectrum. According to Opinium, 43 per cent support postponing the June 21 easing, while 34 per cent think it should go ahead and 10 per cent believe it should be brought forward.
Crucially, the downside of a slight delay is smaller than the risk of relaxing restrictions too quickly – a possible third wave that could eclipse the remarkable success of the vaccination programme and end Johnson’s political dividend from it. There would be upsides for Johnson in a short pause: it would avoid a repeat of his mistakes last autumn, which will be at the heart of the eventual public inquiry and might convince people Cummings is wrong about his instincts.