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In politics, as with the British summer, it never rains but it pours. Just under a fortnight since his stunning local elections success in England, Boris Johnson is finding out just how the political weather can change pretty quickly. And in true 2021 style, lots of problems are coming at once.
First, we had Jenny McGee, the NHS nurse who looked after the PM when he was in intensive care last year. McGee has told a Channel 4 documentary that she has quit her job because of the government’s 1% pay offer and the lack of respect it entailed. “I’m just sick of it,” she said.
Her remarks should act like an ice-bucket challenge to the government, jolting MPs out of their complacency and reminding ministers of just how horrific life has been on the front line for NHS staff this past year. Many are still dealing with post-traumatic stress from the helplessness of combatting this awful virus and its knock-on effects on other healthcare. Many are exhausted.
Yet as the caravan moved on and debate turned to summer holidays, staff in England will never forget they weren’t even given a Christmas bonus (unlike counterparts in Scotland and Wales), let alone a real terms pay rise offer. McGee revealed she couldn’t bring herself to take part in a ‘clap for carers’ photocall alongside the PM, not least as there was little cash for carers.
The second problem came in the shape of Dominic Cummings, who once more hit the Twittersphere to resume his ominous attacks on Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. Ahead of his potentially explosive evidence before MPs next week, the former adviser signalled he had argued for hard and fast lockdowns last year but was ignored.
Cummings also said the UK had a “joke” border policy to deal with Covid, a point heartily seized on by Labour, which is highlighting the rising cases of the Indian variant of the virus and calling for much tougher controls on travellers. Although we know that almost all cases of the Indian variant in London were caused by travel or linked to those who had travelled, there is a strange silence from the government on the breakdown of cases across the UK.
Add to all that the sheer confusion on travel policy. In the morning, cabinet minister George Eustice said ‘amber list’ countries were open to those who wanted to visit family or friends. At lunchtime, No.10 firmly contradicted that, saying all travel to such states was banned other than for a few exceptions. The PM himself said these countries [France, Spain, Italy and so on] were “not somewhere you should go on holiday”.
Even though it is legal to visit such countries and no longer punishable by a £5,000 fine, by the evening another minister had gone much further in the war on travel. Lord Bethell said that any overseas trips were “dangerous”, adding “travelling is not for this year, please stay in this country”. For good measure, he even praised as “creative” the idea of putting electronic tags on anyone quarantining on return from abroad.
No one should underestimate the PM’s houdini-like ability to wriggle out of his political woes. He could arrive at PMQs on Wednesday armed with his strongest hint yet that money had been put aside for a real terms pay rise for NHS nurses, should the independent review body suggest it. Cummings’ own rule-breaking and tarnished credibility in the eyes of the public may blunt his political assassination attempt. Holiday chaos may not really hit home until July.
Instead, it may be travel within the UK, rather outside it, that becomes the PM’s most pressing problem. Eustice went on record to admit local lockdowns were now an “option” for dealing with the Indian variant. Under one hardline option, that could mean travel restrictions into and out of areas like Bolton and Bedford where B.1617.2 is rising in clusters.
The problem is that such local lockdowns have their real potential to cause deep divisions. The Guardian reports today that Bolton council’s Tory leader warned Hancock on Friday that a new local lockdown would cause “civil unrest”.
As well as being potentially toxic to community cohesion, given differing rates of vaccine hesitancy in different ethnic groups, such a plan may simply not work. Even with vaccines, the variant may still escape a tiered system. The Kent variant certainly did when it ripped through the country in December.
On the other hand, if the PM delays the full exit from lockdown for the rest of the country, effectively tying the whole of England to the variant clusters, he faces a sizeable backbench revolt from areas where there is zero Covid. After months of their local businesses living on life support, MPs’ patience could snap and so could Johnson’s.
Still, a national delay may be his least worst policy option. Most of the big changes took place yesterday, and a few weeks more wearing masks and pre-planning pub trips may be more palatable than a fourth wave. There is also a case for saying that in fact the real final unlockdown date should be linked to the government’s own target date for the whole English adult population getting jabbed – the end of July. Any earlier, and unlockdown could be earlier.
But as Johnson tries to justify any delays to his roadmap, the need to ‘protect’ the battered NHS will again become his defence shield. Imagine how much stronger that defence would be if he had thousands of NHS nurses, properly paid and respected, backing his case.