Analysis: With the end in sight, caution is now Boris Johnson’s biggest risk

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Camilla Tominey
·5 min read
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File photo dated 17/2/2021 of Boris Johnson holding a vial of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine. The Prime Minister has set a new target to vaccinate all adults aged over 50 - as well as those with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk - by April 15. Issue date: Sunday February 21, 2021. PA Photo. By July 31, the Government hopes to have offered all adults in the UK a jab – though the order of priority for those under 50 has yet to be outlined by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus.  - Geoff Caddick/PA Wire
File photo dated 17/2/2021 of Boris Johnson holding a vial of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine. The Prime Minister has set a new target to vaccinate all adults aged over 50 - as well as those with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk - by April 15. Issue date: Sunday February 21, 2021. PA Photo. By July 31, the Government hopes to have offered all adults in the UK a jab – though the order of priority for those under 50 has yet to be outlined by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus. - Geoff Caddick/PA Wire

Described as “twice bitten, thrice shy” over the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, there has never been more pressure on Boris Johnson to deliver a roadmap that sticks to its course.

From the Tory backbenchers backseat driving government policy, to an expectant public steering towards things going “vaxx” to normal this summer, the Prime Minister simply cannot afford to lose his lockdown way again.

Which is why he is feeling the tonnage of Monday's announcement so keenly.

Having been forced into not one but two U-turns after re-opening the economy, Mr Johnson simply cannot afford to crash and burn in a fourth lockdown. As he has been at pains to reiterate in recent days: the latest plan must be the last.

Yet as we will learn later, that means adopting a Driving Miss Daisy approach which is likely to provoke impatience among his passengers.

While many will enthusiastically welcome children of all ages returning to the classroom on Mar 8, senior figures like former Conservative leader Lord Hague have already questioned why things cannot return fully to normal by the end of April, when all those over 50 have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, rather than the proposed first-gear approach.

Allowing two households to meet up outside from Mar 29 is all well and good but the public, and particularly the hospitality sector, will rightly want to know why the Rule of Six isn’t likely to be applied indoors until May at the earliest.

Similarly, if the Government is set to meet its target of vaccinating all adults by the end of July, why will masks and social distancing be needed at all come autumn?

Photographs of the second lockdown ending in the Isle of Man on February 1 showed maskless shoppers walking the streets and crowds gathered inside pubs. So why not the same for the rest of our island nation?

Along with senior ministers in cabinet, what worries Tory MPs the most is the threat of the scientists moving the signposts and the PM blindly continuing to “follow the science”, even if it leads to a pile-up within the party.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has already expressed concerns that Sage members are increasingly talking about more stringent tests for lifting the lockdown, based on “circulation” rates or the number of cases per 100,000, instead of the number of people vaccinated and NHS capacity.

The lack of clarity over the next three stages of unlocking, along with confusion over the specific criteria that will be used to decide the further lifting of restrictions, hardly inspires confidence.

SOUTHEND, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21: People walk beside the beach on a warm sunny day as the weather warms for the week ahead on February 21, 2021 in Southend, England. Temperatures are predicted to rise to 18C for parts of the UK this week as a hot air plume is set to arrive from the Canary islands. After a surge of covid-19 cases, fueled partly by a more infectious variant of the virus, the British government had reimposed nationwide lockdown measures across England. A review was held on February 15 and despite deaths and infections falling, lockdown will continue. - John Keeble/Getty Images
SOUTHEND, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21: People walk beside the beach on a warm sunny day as the weather warms for the week ahead on February 21, 2021 in Southend, England. Temperatures are predicted to rise to 18C for parts of the UK this week as a hot air plume is set to arrive from the Canary islands. After a surge of covid-19 cases, fueled partly by a more infectious variant of the virus, the British government had reimposed nationwide lockdown measures across England. A review was held on February 15 and despite deaths and infections falling, lockdown will continue. - John Keeble/Getty Images

While few would disagree that the Government needs to remain mindful of variants, immunity levels and infection rates, what is the point of Britain leading the world in vaccinations if that doesn’t put us in pole position, economically?

Not even the Covid Recovery Group of Tory lockdown-sceptics is advocating a 100mph reverse-ferret, but equally a roadmap that constantly puts the UK back in the pit lane is going to put the skids on our AstraZeneca advantage.

It also doesn’t play particularly well to our Prime Minister’s naturally turbo-powered instincts.

Last year’s boosterish tone, when Mr Johnson would regularly speak about the UK “defeating” the pandemic has been replaced with the sort of non-commital downbeat expectation management we have come to expect of Sir Keir Starmer.

In recent weeks, talk has turned from pugilistic to “prudent” with Mr Johnson claiming to want to see “progress that is cautious but irreversible”.

While this is an understandable reaction to criticism about over-promising and under-delivering, never has the nation needed the Prime Minister’s mojo more as we take our foot off the break and apply the accelerator.

We are supposed to be on the road to recovery, not the long and winding road.

After a year of being conked out on the hard shoulder, the public could be forgiven for wanting Mr Johnson to move into the fast lane.

It doesn’t mean he has to take off his seat belt or drive like a complete maniac, but if he doesn’t make progress quickly enough, he’s going to run into traffic in the human form of the likes of CRG frontmen Mark Harper, Steve Baker and 1922 committee chairman Sir Graham Brady.

The trio were quick out of the blocks on Sunday to chivvy the Prime Minister along in what Mr Baker described as “restoring our way of life”.

They, and all those Conservatives who rebelled or abstained on the last Covid measures, are unlikely to look kindly on the Prime Minister stopping off at every service station to take a look under the bonnet.

In January, Mr Johnson promised that together we would beat the virus “and reclaim our lives".

As Britain reaches the end of its coronavirus journey, with the chequered flag clearly in sight, Mr Johnson must not become so distracted by all the theory that he ends up failing the actual test.