‘They’re going to have to reverse it,’ a Shadow Minister told me.
‘Cases are spiralling. We’re already seeing hospital operations starting to be cancelled. Boris is going to have to come forward some time before September and announce he’s reintroducing restrictions.’
Tomorrow is supposed to be Freedom Day. The moment the Prime Minister channels his inner Churchill and announces to a cheering nation that we have prevailed – our years of Covid privation are permanently behind us.
Instead, his opponents – and some of his allies – believe he is going to have to channel his inner Dr Dolittle. Freedom Day is set to be recast as Pushmi-pullyu day, with Boris as Dr Dolittle.
A brief return to normality, accompanied with dire warnings about what will happen if we all ‘rip the pants out of it’. Then an inevitable slide back towards compulsory mask-wearing, social distancing and some form of lockdown.
Tomorrow is supposed to be Freedom Day. The moment the Prime Minister channels his inner Churchill and announces to a cheering nation that we have prevailed – our years of Covid privation are permanently behind us
The official line is that all is going to plan. The roadmap has been followed. The final controls are being removed.
From midnight tonight we can all begin drinking and eating and dancing to our hearts’ content. (So long as we do so in a cautious and socially responsible way.)
But something significant has changed.
‘I hope that the roadmap is irreversible,’ Boris told the nation on Monday. ‘We’ve always said that we hope that it will be irreversible – but in order to have an irreversible roadmap, we also said it’s got to be a cautious approach.’
That’s not what he’s always said.
The Government’s position has been clear from the beginning. The timetable was going to have to be flexible. Data would be the guide, not dates.
But once we took that last step, that would be it. The only thing that could wrest things into reverse would be the emergence of a dangerous new variant.
In the absence of such a strain there are a number of reasons why Boris has quietly shelved the ‘I’ word. One of the most significant is the way that, at the moment of truth, his most senior scientific and medical advisers have pulled the rug out from under him.
Last month, when the PM announced he would be delaying reopening for one final time, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were supportive. ‘This is a virus that is going to be with us for ever,’ Vallance said.
‘If we didn’t have the vaccine, we’d now be looking at a question of if more lockdown is needed. That’s not where we are… the four-week delay should reduce the peak by 30 to 50 per cent, and it’s not very obvious you get much more gain going on longer than that.’
But by Thursday that show of optimistic unity had been dumped.
In the absence of such a strain there are a number of reasons why Boris has quietly shelved the ‘I’ word. One of the most significant is the way that, at the moment of truth, his most senior scientific and medical advisers have pulled the rug out from under him. Last month, when the PM announced he would be delaying reopening for one final time, Chris Whitty (pictured) and Patrick Vallance were supportive
A few hours after Boris proclaimed ‘it is highly probable the worst of the pandemic is behind us’, Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, popped up on a Covid web seminar to claim restrictions could be reintroduced in as little as five weeks. We could be looking at ‘scary’ hospitalisation figures, he warned.
Another reason ministers are becoming worried about the irreversibility of Freedom Day isn’t the dangers of the pandemic but a risk of unleashing a ‘pingdemic’ – as proved by Health Secretary Sajid Javid being diagnosed with Covid yesterday.
The number of people getting orders from the Covid app to self-isolate is rocketing, Branson-like, through the stratosphere.
And as social distancing is dropped, Ministers are starting to believe the nation could grind to a halt. ‘The problem is we don’t know what to do,’ one told me.
‘It’s a Catch-22. If we drop the requirement to isolate, the number of infections will soar. But if we don’t do it, we’re going to be looking at a million people sitting at home, most of whom are perfectly healthy, and our businesses and services are going to collapse.’
One option under consideration is to bring forward the point when those who have been double-vaccinated can take daily tests, rather than isolate. But there are concerns that with the vaccines providing limited protection from transmission, that may not prove effective.
Then there is the Michael Gove Mystery Scheme. Last week, I wrote about how Gove and his ministerial colleagues have been benefiting from a ‘pilot’ that lets them utilise their own daily testing regime, rather than isolate.
One Government official told me the pilot may be due to publish its initial findings next week, though they were unable to say how successful it had been, or whether it was likely it would be rolled out for wider use.
The number of people getting orders from the Covid app to self-isolate is rocketing, Branson-like, through the stratosphere. And as social distancing is dropped, Ministers are starting to believe the nation could grind to a halt
But there’s a further reason Boris’s longed-for re-enactment of VE Day is losing its lustre. It’s that our national unlocking has coincided with yet another of his periodic personal crises of faith.
By-election defeats at Chesham and Amersham, and Batley. A growing internal backlash against his one-dimensional Red Wall strategy. The bales of tumbleweed floating across the stage as he delivered his week’s ‘levelling-up’ speech this week.
At the decisive hour, the man who said he aspired to be the mayor from Jaws – because ‘he kept the beaches open’ – has lost his nerve.
All his instincts are telling him this is the moment to tell Britain: ‘The shark’s dead! Get out in that surf and party!’ But his scientists and their spreadsheets are chiding him: ‘OK, reopen. But don’t blame us if, like in Jaws, the little Kintner boy appears chewed up on the dock.’
The PM’s enemies can sense this weakness. Allies of Sir Keir Starmer believe this could be a political ‘moment’. They describe Boris’s cast-iron pledge to make his reopening irreversible as ‘bizarre’. ‘It’s going to give us an opportunity to focus on his character,’ one told me. ‘And how it’s all about bluster without any attention to detail.’
And one other important issue – trust. A Labour MP said to me: ‘He’s going to have to start locking things down again. And when he does, we’ll say, ‘See, Boris lied to you.’ ‘ But, as the MP admitted, Labour had done that before and voters ‘didn’t give a toss’.
But that’s partly because, when it comes to the big issues, Boris is seen to have delivered. He said he’d get Brexit done, and he did. He said he’d roll out the vaccine and get needles into arms faster than any leader in Europe. And he did.
The Commons Speaker can deliver as many raps across the knuckles as he likes – but most people don’t care. Their interest solely relates to where Boris’s pledges interface with their daily lives.
Freedom Day is one of them.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to a Government official about unlocking. ‘The key is it’s irreversible,’ he said. ‘Once we remove a restriction, we won’t put it back. Unless there’s a new variant that breaks through the vaccine.’
On Friday, I went back to him. ‘It’s all a balance,’ he said. ‘We’ve always wanted it to be irreversible. But there are other factors at play.’ Factors other than a new variant? ‘Yes. There are other scenarios.’
Boris pledged Freedom Day was irreversible. It had better be. For his sake, as well as ours.