The Government is up against the clock to justify its next set of restrictions – as the Covid Recovery Group grows

17 Nov

Will they or won’t they? Is the question being asked of MPs in regards to whether they will extend the current lockdown restrictions in England. Although these measures are due to expire on December 2, at yesterday’s press conference, Matt Hancock told the nation that it was “too early to know” if they had worked.

The Government’s post-lockdown plan is to return to the tiered system of lockdown. But even that could shift. At the same press conference as Hancock, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England, threw a spanner in the works when she said there had been “little effect from Tier 1”, and that the Government might have to “think about strengthening” tiers “to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone.”

Despite some encouraging statistics about the nation’s battle with Covid – intensive care admissions have fallen, and hospitals are running at “normal capacity”, according to Carl Heneghan, a professor director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University – there are signs the Government will play it safe when it comes to imposing more restrictions.

There was the fact that Rishi Sunak recently expanded the furlough scheme so that it will last until March. More recently, a newspaper printed emails from George Pascoe-Watson, Chairman of Portland Communications, who had been advising Dido Harding and James Bethell on strategy and communications, revealing he had been “been privately advised that tier 2 restrictions will be imposed on London until at least the spring of next year.” 

In short, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to make the following prediction (contingent on hospitalisations being at a manageable level): the Government will phase out the lockdown (thereby keeping its promise and avoiding the difficulties of an extension being approved) but then move parts of the country into Tier 2, 3 or 4 (as has just been imposed on 11 local authorities in Scotland) – with the measures in place until spring. Therefore, many will be left feeling that they are in de facto lockdown. 

One reason the Government might feel emboldened to keep restrictions going is the news of two vaccines, as well as the knowledge that mass testing is being rapidly developed. It’s far easier to ask people to “sit tight” if they know an exit strategy is on its way.

But one group that is going to present a big headache for the Government is the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG), whose members will vote on the next set of restrictions. The CRG has been steadily growing in numbers, now standing at around 70 members, according to reports. Depending on how much bigger this figure gets, and what restrictions the Government next wants to impose, it may have to increasingly call on Labour to get the voting numbers.

And it’s not only the idea of a national lockdown that the CRG is opposed to. Its members are also sceptical of softer restrictions; or, at least, they want them to be justified. Mark Harper, CRG chairman, has called some of the previous Covid-19 measures “arbitrary”, and the group is unlikely to ease off the pressure because of a vaccine. Steve Baker, its deputy chairman, has said that “we must find a more sustainable way of leading our lives until a vaccine is rolled out”. As far as the CRG is concerned, days, weeks and months are too long in terms of waiting for Pfizer to come to the rescue.

The group’s main demand is that the Government is more transparent with information on the cost of lockdown. It wants a full-cost benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis, and for the Government to publish the models that inform policies – so that members of the public can make up their own mind. In short, the CRG is trying to place the burden of proof onto the Government to explain why it’s imposing any restrictions – as opposed to MPs having to argue for them to come off.

As Harper tells me: “When the Government brings forward its proposals for what follows the lockdown, it’s incumbent on it to show that for every restriction it wants to put in place, the good done by the restriction outweighs the harm, both from a health perspective and an economic perspective.”

Given that December 2 is approaching the Christmas period, the pressure will be all the greater for the Government to explain the rationale for each set of restrictions, as even more closures for shops could signal their end. MPs will also be after more information for how the Government’s mass testing programmes are coming along – one of the main ways it can reopen the economy until the vaccine arrives.

Interestingly, the Government could be about to run into difficulties not so disimilar from the ones Angela Merkel has experienced in Germany. Merkel had wanted to tighten Germany’s restrictions, but failed to win the support of the country’s state leaders. Thus she has had to postpone decision making in this regard. In essence, just as the public support for lockdown might be tiring, so is MPs’.

Either way, the next couple of weeks will be interesting to say the least.

Elsewhere:

Brave New World

15 Nov
  • One of this site’s favourite sayings is that character is destiny.  This being so, it would be unlike Dominic Cummings to go quietly.  At some point, he will surely drop a bunker-busting bomb on Downing Street – his version of recent events.  It will not make happy reading for the Prime Minister.
  • This position overlaps with Lee Cain’s, but isn’t identical.  Like Cummings, Cain is a core member of Team Vote Leave.  Unlike him, he worked for Boris Johnson previously as a SpAd at the Foreign Office, and then as his aide after the Chequers resignation.  “Caino” has a real attachment to his former boss.
  • At any rate, both are gone, and the sum is that certainty has been changed for uncertainty.  With the Johnson/Cummings duo, the Government’s political strategy was a known – and and a core part of it was winning and keeping support in parts of England with a Labour history, from those famous Just About Managings.
  • Does the new Downing Street aim to carry on marching north, as it were, but with fewer male, macho officers in charge: more Allegra Strattons (not to mention Carrie Symonds, now fully politically engaged?), fewer Cains   If so, will such a switch work?  Isn’t in-your-face anti-establishment aggression an integral part of the exercise?
  • Or does the Grand Old Duke of Johnson intend to march his army back south towards its home counties comfort zone – to make a greener, kinder, gentler and more female pitch to a more familiar Tory audience, with today’s Prime Minister magically recreated as yesterday’s London Mayor?
  • Either way, it is, in principle, a bad thing for a Government to seek to reinvent itself after less than a year in office.  If it’s messed up the past – by its own tacit admission – why trust it in future?  In practice, it is also swapping certainty for uncertainty: Johnson risks becoming a blank sheet of paper on which others will scrawl whatever they wish.
  • Which is what’s happening now.  So it’s necessary to discount much of what you are currently reading and seeing as rumour and speculation.  What’s certain is that the Prime Minister needs to make some decisions fast: first, about Downing Street itself.  Second, about the Government.  Third, about policy and strategy.
  • On Downing Street, he needs a permanent Chief of Staff.  What would fit the bill is a senior civil servant, not an MP, with political views.  That sounds a lot like David Frost, when the Brexit negotiation is over.  Sajid Javid’s name is presumably being floated because Symonds was his SpAd, but he would be wrong for the post.
  • Which takes us to government.  Able politicians should be running departments as Cabinet members, not working as staffers in Number Ten.  Johnson cannot now avoid a reshuffle at the top.  That means bringing in talent old and new: Javid, Tom Tugendhat, Jeremy Hunt, Kemi Badenoch, Liam Fox.
  • And, on the subject of governing better, Cabinet members should be given their heads and not micro-managed.  There can be no repetition of the Cummings experiment – not least because it would be impossible to find a substitute for him, anyway.  Circumstances make it inevitable to try a more traditional style of government.
  • That also suggests: a single elected MP, who has independent political authority, as Party Chairman; a new Chief Whip and more experience in the Whips’ Office; an Andrew Mackay-type senior MP to sit in the key Downing Street meetings and to work the backbenches.
  • Next, and turning to policy, the Brexit trade talks.  Cummings’ departure raises two possibilites.  First, that any deal is written off as a “betrayal of Vote Leave’s legacy” and “a stitch-up by Remainers” (point of information: Symonds and Stratton both voted Leave).  And that No Deal leaves Johnson bereft of Cummings when he most needs him.
  • Then there is Covid-19 – and the December 2 deadline for returning to the three-tiered system.  The emergence of the Covid Recovery Group is a sign of a rising backbench revolt against lockdown.  Attempts to prolong it would blow up the fragile truce currently in place between Downing Street and MPs.
  • On policy, other quick points.  MPs opposed to the Government’s housing plans are moving in to try to kill them off; others who back a “war on woke” are mobilising (in the wake of reports that Johnson wants to steer clear of one); and all agree that the Prime Minister is increasingly preoccupied by the possibility of losing Scotland on his watch.
  • What will any new stress on green policy mean, as COP26 looms into view?  One version would be a softer-focused one, focused on emissions, climate change and animals (a passion of Symonds).  Another would be harder-edged: preocuppied with growth and “green jobs” – that stressed by such pro-Brexit provincial politicians as Ben Houchen.
  • Uncertainty reigns elsewhere, too  For example, does the Prime Minister really want to recreate a Cameron-era style Policy Board – led by an MP: reportedly, our columnist Neil O’Brien? If so, how would it, and new taskforces with MP members, dovetail with the Number Ten Policy Unit, as led by Munira Mirza?
  • The media is currently trampling on the grave of Dominic Cummings.  At some point, much of it will turn on Symonds.  Her backers will point out that she is a communications professional, and entitled to have views.  Her critics will argue that she is unelected, and holds no official position.  There are claims of sexism.  This is where we are going.
  • And finally, there is one very senior Conservative politician indeed who is keeping well out of it – and, no, we don’t mean Michael Gove, who is still our candidate to bring order to policy and process.  Rather, we are thinking of the man last seen placing his rangoli outside Number 11 for Diwali: Rishi Sunak.