Could Boris Johnson Surprise Everyone With A Gradual, Careful ‘Unlockdown’?

Paul Waugh
·Executive Editor, Politics, HuffPost UK
·6 min read

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It’s one of the many contradictions about Boris Johnson that he loves to be seen as a man of action, even though dithering is a key part of his political psyche. Or, to adapt the old joke, he used to be indecisive, but now he’s not so sure.‌

I’ve written before about the PM’s prevaricate-then-panic style of leadership and we had more evidence of it today with his big reveal on tighter curbs on travel into the UK. The suspension of all travel “corridors” from 4am on Monday was welcomed by many, yet it instantly prompted questions as to why it hadn’t happened sooner.

Thanks to delays in publishing guidance on testing-before-arrival, it’s been possible all week for people carrying the Brazil or South African variants of Covid to come to the UK without any kind of test. If the Brazilian variant really is “vaccine-busting” as Johnson suggested, many will wonder why he’s waiting a whole weekend before imposing tighter restrictions on travel. His critics may also think he’s once again hiding behind the “new variant” defence (as he did with the “Kent variant” lockdown in December) to justify action that many had already urged on him.

The new move to step up Border Force “spot checks” on new entrants is another late admission that the system to date has been underpowered. What’s perhaps surprising to many is why new arrivals aren’t instantly put in many of the empty hotels at airports and quarantined there with regular testing. Even from Monday, a visitor can hop on a Tube from Heathrow and potentially spread a new variant as they go.

It’s worth pointing out there is still an unresolved debate about whether travel bans work. Before the pandemic, the WHO said they give “a false impression of control”. As the US has proved, bans on their own don’t work if there’s no wider strategy of lockdowns and testing. The UK, despite having the advantage of being an island nation, hasn’t managed to follow New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and Japan in halting imports of the virus.

As the latest No.10 press conference was going on, the international reach of this virus was brought home starkly with new figures showing that the planet had suffered more than two million deaths. As Chris Whitty rightly pointed out, that only served to underline just how important a global vaccination effort now was.

The good news at least in the UK is that our early and well-organised vaccination programme is proceeding apace, and the PM’s new stats that 40% of care home residents have been jabbed is very welcome news.

The granular stats are not available yet, but I suspect that most of the vaccinations have taken place in hospital hubs and GPs surgeries rather than the mega-centres that the government unveiled with great fanfare. As with Nightingale Hospitals, the grand gesture is often less important than the infrastructure already in place, as long as it is allowed to work. (Ironically, the London Nightingale is now being reshaped to do vaccinations).

But the big issue that overshadowed the Downing Street briefing tonight was of course just what happens next once the first wave of vaccinations of the most vulnerable groups is complete. The PM said the issue “preoccupies” him but sounded his most cautious to date about giving any timetables.‌

Whitty put a clear marker down, saying “it will have to be walking backwards by degrees, testing what works, and then if that works going the next step”. And Johnson added “as Chris just said, it will be a process”. Significantly, he stressed that immunizing the younger population could be key. When the PM himself says we can’t have “any false sense of security” that means the virus “runs riot in the younger generations”, you know he’s been shown some scary projections.

Speaking of a false sense of security, however, it’s still baffling why the government doesn’t do more with public health messaging about the need to ventilate workplaces, schools and shops. Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance mentioned ventilation, but the PM said we should “not get fixated on exhalations” and said wiping surfaces and hand washing was key. Given that “exhalations” really are the source of transmission, that sounded like a spectacularly dumb thing to say.‌

Aerosol droplets of the virus lingering in a closed space are absolutely crucial in transmission, which is why Jonathan Van Tam has previously stressed “the three Cs” (closed spaces, crowds, contact) used in Japan. The government itself has produced one advert (sadly only one) on the importance of ventilation but it’s surprising it’s not a central part of its messaging. Why not tell more people to treat the virus like cigarette smoke in a closed space? Why not use ‘Hands, Face, Space, Ventilate’ as the new message?

Chris Whitty was clear that the lockdown is starting to work and there are signs “we are now slowing this right down”. Yet he stressed that the UK was facing another week before the peak of hospitalisations would pass. The success in London and the South East, but rising cases in the north west and south west, only served to underline the possibly huge error Johnson made in not imposing a nationwide lockdown just before Christmas. If he had, the peak could be over now rather than us waiting for 10 more days of misery and death.

And in terms of the need for extra caution, it was Sir Patrick Vallance who had perhaps the most striking comments of the entire No.10 briefing. He pointed out that vaccinations were fantastic at preventing people from suffering illness and dying, but the jury was still out on whether they halted transmission and spread to the unvaccinated.

“There will still be transmission,” he warned. “We shouldn’t go mad when people start getting vaccinated and assuming that everything’s OK, you can’t catch it, you can’t pass it on.” That sounded like an eloquent answer to Tory lockdown sceptics like Steve Baker. From his overall tone today, it sounded as if the PM had agreed not to “go mad” too.

It remains to be seen whether the PM can oversee a gradual, managed process of easing restrictions. But given his dithering on other issues, he may have finally discovered the right kind of delay.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.