When the third lockdown was voted on in the House of Commons last month, there was a smaller Tory rebellion than the previous two votes. A combination of the arrival of an exit strategy through vaccines, the new Kent variant and the sharp increase in hospital admissions meant that many MPs previously critical of lockdown as a tool against coronavirus, supported the measures. However, with Boris Johnson due to set out a roadmap later this month on the path out of lockdown, the mood is now beginning to change.
Tensions increased this week when Matt Hancock announced new border measures. Controversially, this included a potential ten year prison sentence for those who lied about where they had travelled to the UK from. This was quickly criticised across the political spectrum, with former attorney general Dominic Grieve criticising the legal basis and libertarian Tories voicing their concern over what they saw as a draconian punishment for those who flouted the rules.
It comes as concerns grow over the pace of the exit strategy. Whispers that the reopening of schools could be pushed back beyond 8 March sparked a furious backlash from Tory MPs, with education select committee chair Rob Halfon going so far as to call for the deadline to be ‘signed in blood’. No. 10 have since sought to calm MPs and Downing Street figures are suggesting the reopening of schools is on schedule.
But the underlying fear among Tory MPs is that the goalposts could be moved on the reopening. It wasn’t so long ago that Matt Hancock told The Spectator that once the vulnerable had been vaccinated, it would be time to ‘cry freedom’. The Health Secretary also predicted a ‘great British summer’. Yet since then, ministers have gone rather quiet on the issue, refusing to even say whether a staycation this summer will be possible.
In the meantime, there’s no shortage of scientists or SAGE advisers ready to go on the airwaves and warn that social distancing will be here for months if not years to come. Today’s Times reports that ministers are poised to agree a one-metre rule until at least the autumn, on the grounds that social distancing will need to continue throughout the summer.
Some of this downplaying of expectations is being put to the new No. 10 mantra: ‘underpromise, over deliver’. But it’s telling that these days ministers are unsure over the overall Covid strategy. There is concern among Tory MPs that Johnson is changing the strategy.
This month’s roadmap – on which work has begun this week – will offer the clearest indicator yet as to whether the change in messaging is simply down to a more cautious comms approach or a new Covid approach altogether.
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