The Prime Minister may be in a better place than many think

By Simon Gentry

On Sunday morning the Prime Minister appears on television and tells the nation that the schools must stay open, that the damage to children caused by closing them is too great.  On Monday evening, less than 36 hours later, he addresses the country and announces that schools must close. Over the weekend we learn that the two approved vaccines may not protect against the ’South African variant’ of Covid-19 yet direct flights from Johannesburg continue and there is no attempt to stop or even identify people travelling from South Africa but through transit points like Dubai or Amsterdam.

These are two of many examples of what appear to be dither and delay in taking action against a disease that has killed tens of thousands and is set to kill many more – and that’s before we get onto the economic damage it’s done.  Why, many ask, is the Prime Minister and the government he leads, so slow to take action when the direction of travel is so obvious?  Just lock us down.  Close the schools, close the borders, keep the (borrowed) cash flowing until we’ve all been vaccinated.

The Prime Minister’s defenders say that it’s not chaotic decision making and that things are not quite as obvious as the arm-chair commentators on Twitter think they are.  They point out the very serious damage that is being done to children’s education by school closures and that the government was right to wait till the very last moment to make the decision.  They add that the Prime Minister is, as he promised to, “listening to the science”, and only making decisions when the evidence is clear.  Ditto closing the borders, we know too little about the South African variant to make a sound decision.  

The slowness of the Prime Minister’s decision-making is down to his instinctive and ideological liberalism, his supporters claim.  They also point out that despite of the severity of Tier 4 restrictions, the virus continued to spread not because the government did something, but because people obviously ignored the restrictions and kept meeting.  Short of house arresting all of us, what more could the government do?  We all know what to do but many of us are simply ignoring it.

Of course focussing exclusively on the Covid situation underplays the Prime Minister’s success in the Brexit negotiations which culminated in the Christmas Eve agreement with Brussels.  The agreement united almost all MPs – save the SNP who having campaigned passionately against ‘no-deal’ actually voted for exactly that.  Achieving such huge support in Parliament on such a contentious issue is in itself a very considerable political achievement. 

The Government should also take credit for the smooth transition to the new import – export regime.  Against the expectation of almost everyone, and to the evident disappointment of breathless BBC and Sky correspondents camped out in Dover and Calais, the new systems seem to be running smoothly.  That too is quite an achievement.

The settling of the trade relationship with the EU has another important implication – it will free up a huge amount of time and energy in Government, time and energy that can now be focussed on the Covid response and achieving the ambitious goal of 2 million vaccinations every week.  

Even without a new super-transmissible variant, the government must have known that these first, cold, dark months of 2021 would be the hardest on the country and them, and so it is proving.  The Johnson administration is, however, likely to be judged in the medium-term on the success of the vaccination programme, and what we all hope will be a spring return to normality, and that is where the Prime Minister’s focus will now be.