Does Boris Johnson think the way through the third Covid wave is through more injections, more infections or both? Well, on the basis of his latest Downing Street press briefing, you could be forgiven for thinking all three options are very much alive and jostling for attention in the PM’s brain.
As he dialled in for the first time from Chequers for the event, he looked as remote from clear decision making as he was from the £2.6m briefing room itself.
After days of appearing to turn his public health policy into a giant shrug of the shoulders (“meh, a big wave was gonna happen sometime so why not now?”), the PM had one big, bold new announcement designed to show he wasn’t a let-it-rip, laissez faire leader after all.
Yes, from the end of September, nightclubs and other venues with large gatherings will be forced to turn away people who have not been double jabbed. But the very fact this mandatory measure was being delayed for more than eight weeks itself caused more confusion.
One one reading, this an extra incentive to young people to get double jabbed (turning Ibiza amber last week felt similar) so they can enjoy freedoms. Yet on another reading, it was actually an invitation to the under-30s to cram in as much clubbing as they can now, in turn spreading the virus and building “natural immunity” as well as vaccine immunity.
There’s certainly the whiff of incoherence about the PM’s policy making right now. Asked by The Sun to rule out needing to “produce papers” for a pint, he said “I certainly don’t want to see passports for pubs”. Yet within the same breath he added that in enclosed crowded places with close social contact (yes, that sounds like quite a few pubs) “we reserve the right to do what is necessary to protect the public”.
Similarly, vaccinations will be allowed for 12 to 16 year-olds if they or their parents are vulnerable, but not if (for example) their teachers are. And on the whole idea of compulsion, the government has already crossed the rubicon of forcing care staff to get the jab, while it only edges towards the idea for other settings.
On the very day that almost all restrictions were lifted in England, the requirements on travel were in some cases more draconian (as with arrivals from France). Double jabbed ‘critical workers’ will be allowed exemptions from having to isolate, with a negative PCR followed by daily testing. Yet a similar belt-and-braces regime was not employed for the “events research programme” for Wimbledon or Wembley finals.
As for mask-wearing, while the PM must be pleased Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham are making it a condition of travel, there’s no real consistency. The Department of Transport’s permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly suggested people travelling from England to Scotland would have to put their masks on, just as people arriving on a train in London would need one for the Tube. Well, spoiler alert: they’re not.
I travelled by train to and from the capital on Monday, and there was a marked increase in non-mask wearing. Way back in spring 2020, before the first lockdown, Chris Whitty said the pandemic would bring out extraordinary “acts of altruism”, but it seems the 30% (in recent polls) who won’t wear face coverings now have altruism fatigue.
And those numbers may grow as others will ask themselves why they should bother if others aren’t. As Prof Graham Medley pointed out last week, there’s literally no point in having a mask-wearing regime where a substantial chunk of the population rejects it. Even when mask wearing was a legal requirement, transport and supermarket staff almost never enforced it, so that’s hardly going to happen now.
In some ways, mask-wearing and even working from home are beside the point, though. What really suppresses a Covid case curve is a curb on people meeting indoors. When I asked Jonathan Van-Tam today what measures he’d reintroduce if the NHS was at risk again, he said “close contact indoors” would be his target. The public may be baffled by mixed messaging but it seems the only language the virus understands is a lockdown of one kind or another.
Johnson’s Covid confusion – over whether he wants to offer carrots or sticks, whether he want compulsion or vigorously opposes it, whether pubs are the Englishman’s last liberty or even they are subject to ‘pint passports’ – seems as endemic now as the virus itself. On the one hand the PM backs isolation by App ‘ping’ to restrict the spread of Covid, yet on the other hand he seems resigned to the spread itself.
The best reason for the July 19 unlockdown’s timing is clearly the looming school holiday firebreak. And we had better hope that Sir Patrick Vallance was right when he said August should see a plateauing or even cases “coming down by September”. But it would help if the PM made up his mind about whether he wants those infections, injections or both.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.