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Even before Boris Johnson first announced his roadmap for releasing lockdown last month, some Tory MPs felt his scientific advisers were “moving the goalposts” to ensure a slower return to normality. When ministers suggested some restrictions (like bans on holidays) could take even longer, backbencher Sir Charles Walker said the goalposts had “not so much moved as been ripped out and carried off to another playing field”.
At the latest No.10 press conference, it seemed the ground was shifting again. For weeks many have been watching the ‘R’ number like hawks every Friday. While overall the PM showed no inclination at all to accelerate through any of the stages on his roadmap, both he and deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries suggested that the ‘R’ was now longer as important as it was.
With schools opening more fully, ‘R’ will increase, the question is just by how much. Johnson said “there will be a risk of increased transmission, that’s inevitable if you open up schools for millions of kids”, but he stressed that the much lower number of cases, plus the vaccine impact, made that less of a concern. While in the past opening schools has increased the number by 0.5, some believe it could be much lower this time and it won’t go above the dangerous 1.
Harries underlined the vaccination point, and the fact that the most vulnerable older age groups were now being protected (as well as the importance of school testing). Even without a vaccine, R’s importance is reduced when there’s a lower prevalence of the virus (and let’s not forget a lot of the heavy lifting in lowering its prevalence is coming from severe lockdown on personal interaction). The goalposts have moved, but they were always going to.
And on the vexed issue of NHS pay, it seems as if there is subtle but important movement too. The PM tried to sidestep the subject by referring to the fact that there are 10,000 “more” nurses this year and recruitment was up 36%. As I pointed out last week, the Tory manifesto pledge for 50,000 ‘more’ nurses was always a sleight of hand that relied on 18,500 current nurses not leaving the profession. If they feel let down by this pay round, they could vote with their feet.
Yet the clues to some wriggle room are getting stronger. I’m told that the discussion about a possible one-off bonus hasn’t even started seriously yet within Whitehall, but it certainly hasn’t been ruled out. The £55bn Covid reserve is one place such a one-off could be found. The PM’s spokesman today notably didn’t knock down the idea of a bonus, which was of course handed out in Scotland.
What was also intriguing was that the spokesman pointed out that the independent pay review body considering the 1% rise would also be taking into account “the cost of living, inflation and other factors” in its decision. With inflation forecast to rise above 1%, that felt like a glimmer of a hint that the government was crossing its fingers that a real terms pay cut would not be suggested this May, when the final recommendations emerge.
Several Tory backbenchers expect a U-turn of some kind, whether it’s in the form of a higher pay rise for lower paid workers, a one-off bonus for front line staff, or even wider changes. The “cut through” of this issue is significant, with MPs’ mailbags (yes actual letters) filling up with constituents wondering just why NHS staff are not getting more recognition after this extraordinary year. Andrew Percy, far from a rebel, has branded the 1% offer “unacceptable”.
Unusually, Matt Hancock decided not to appear in the Commons to answer Labour’s Urgent Question on the issue, sending junior minister Helen Whately instead. I say unusual, in that Hancock defended the decision last Friday, and because he is almost always available to give updates on the pandemic.
Could his reticence be linked to his own direct role in the decision? I’m told he was “robust” about going ahead with the 1% rise within government before it was announced, and that like any secretary of state it was his call on how much of his budget should go on pay and how much on other priorities. Then again, allies of Hancock insist “it’s a government decision as to what is affordable”.
Some suggest the trade-off is this: in the Cabinet war for the PM’s ear, Hancock won the battle for a slow and cautious unlockdown, but the price was that Sunak won the battle for pay restraint. Others in government dispute that version. Hancock himself had already upset nurses last December when he said their pay round (due in March) was being delayed to May because of the timing of the chancellor’s spending review.
In his letter to the pay review body, the health secretary said: “We expect these recommendations to take account of the extremely challenging fiscal and economic context, and consider the affordability of pay awards.” After that tough message, was it really a surprise he then recommended 1%?
Whoever is ultimately responsible for the offer, it now feels like No.10 is aware of the need for some kind of change of tack. But as with free school meals, it may not be the U-turn that’s remembered as much as the image of a government reluctant to help those with huge public sympathy.