Boris Johnson learns his coronavirus lesson

LONDON — Boris Johnson took an “utmost care” approach to lifting coronavirus restrictions after learning the hard way about infection control.  

In a significant break with the past, the prime minister unveiled a slow, careful roadmap out of the lockdown in England that will see restrictions peeled off gradually between March and June with almost nervous trepidation. 

“The crocus of hope is poking through the frost and spring is on its way both literally and metaphorically, but I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives,” Johnson told a press conference in Downing Street on Monday evening.

“We will be guided by the data and by the progress that we make. That’s why it is important to be cautious,” he explained, arguing that he wanted the lifting of restrictions to be “irreversible.”

“People would rather see certainty about these dates — as much certainty as we can give — than haste,” he claimed.

Previous plans to loosen the chokehold of restrictions were more gung-ho. When the first lockdown ended in 2020, with deaths around the 40,000 mark, it was two months between schools opening and the government effectively paying punters to eat inside restaurants. 

This time, Johnson announced a roadmap that will take longer between schools opening and indoor restaurant visits, and at least four months before all measures are lifted — including a five-week wait between each stage to keep watch over the data, as well as a four-point checklist to meet before the government can go further.

Gone too is the risk-taking to keep Brits (or at least his lockdown-skeptic Conservative backbenchers) happy. Johnson took a lax approach to lockdowns towards the end of 2020, and at Christmas allowed swathes of the public to mix, despite the more infectious Kent strain running rampant. The death toll surpassed 100,000 soon after.

Data not dates

But his colleagues see a different approach this time around. “Most prime ministers take years to move from sunshine ruling the day to worldly caution — but Boris has done it in months,” health committee chair Jeremy Hunt told POLITICO. “I suspect though the optimism will be back before we know it.”

“The relatively cautious approach of the government announced by the prime minister today is to be welcomed,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to Downing Street. “It demonstrates that lessons have at last been learnt from what has been a disastrous handling of this pandemic from February last year to the present time.”

Johnson pledged to stick to “data not dates” in his latest easing plan, echoing scientific advice to back his roadmap up. Minutes from the independent SAGE group of government advisers said “decisions about changes to restrictions are best made based on epidemiological data rather than based on predetermined dates.”

And the data show that while things are improving, COVID is still having a significant impact. More than 10,600 people were confirmed as having contracted the virus on Sunday, and the latest seven-day average of daily deaths within 28 days of a positive test stood at 480.

At the press conference, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty stressed that Brits were not about to see the back of the pandemic. “This is not the end — but this is the point where we can have a steady, risk-based opening up,” he said. Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance drove the point home when he said mask-wearing, hand-washing and a test and trace regime could be a “baseline” of measures needed next winter.

SAGE argued that until all adults have been vaccinated, the lifting of restrictions will prompt a substantial rise in hospital admissions and deaths, with a particular risk from people mixing indoors.

Lockdown skeptics

The advice offered armor for Johnson against the lockdown-skeptic wing of his Conservative backbenchers, who have been piling pressure on him to lift all restrictions once the most vulnerable groups have had the jab in mid-April. 

The prime minister faced down his critics in a two and a half hour grilling in the House of Commons, telling their leader Mark Harper it was “pure mathematics” that a large minority will still not have had the jab or be sufficiently protected by it. Harper countered in a later statement that the rationale would mean society being “held back” by those who choose not to be vaccinated.

Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the COVID Recovery Group — a collection of lockdown-skeptic Tory MPs — said the roadmap was a “hammer blow to aviation, pubs, restaurants, hotels, gyms and pools, the arts and entertainment. Once again it seems to be modeling not data driving decisions.”

Other Conservative lockdown skeptics appeared subdued in the Commons. Paul Bristow said the five-week waits between each easing stage were “arbitrary.” But a snap poll of 1,002 people carried out by ComRes suggested the public appreciated the cautious approach, with 52 percent saying they were satisfied with the prime minister’s plan versus 17 percent who were not.

Most MPs were also supportive. Even opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said it was “a welcome change from some of the language [Johnson] has used in the past.”

Starmer called for more economic support for firms that will have to remain closed, and Johnson all but confirmed that the various schemes, including the furlough regime to subsidize worker salaries, would continue. “We will not pull the rug out,” he told MPs. 

But the PM stressed that the steady vaccine rollout is the true offer of hope. More than 17.7 million people in the U.K. have now had a first jab, and polls suggest the success of the rollout has given Johnson a significant boost.

He told the press conference that the vaccines are “creating a shield around the entire population which means that we are now travelling on a one way road to freedom.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.
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