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A route out of lockdown is the biggest issue facing the Prime Minister, but he is caught between two contradictory demands

By Chris White
10 February 2021

By Chris White

The Prime Minister faced calls from all sides for greater clarity in PMQs today over a range of Government policies including business support, the end of lockdown, and the return to school for pupils, which are symptomatic of the wider tensions between the economy and healthcare within Government.

Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, took a precision approach to his questioning, asking a series of perfectly reasonable questions about whether business rates relief will continue beyond March, the furlough scheme would go beyond April, and if the evictions ban would be extended. For most of these responses, the PM was able to hide behind the upcoming Budget (3 March), keen not to pre-empt spending decisions before they have been made.

However, it enabled the Opposition to continue to push the theme that the PM is a ditherer, putting jobs and business at risk rather than act immediately. Coupled with accusation that the PM has been slow to make decisions on lockdowns and relies too much on the advice of his advisors, it is an accusation that threatens to stick, particularly with the long delay to the introduction of border controls.

The Leader of the Opposition was quick to attack the Government’s claim that it had instituted one of the ‘toughest’ quarantine regimes in the world, referring to a study by Oxford University that showed 33 countries have tougher quarantine regimes than the UK. The PM defended the policy, pointing out that the UK could not cut itself off from the world, particularly as vaccine supplies need to be transported across borders.

The Institute for Government has set out a range of concerns with the Government’s policy, which it described as “an uneasy compromise between ministers prioritising health outcomes and others concerned about the impact on the economy, but which risks achieving the objectives of neither.”

It is this trade off, between health and the economy, that continues to cause significant challenges for the Government, particularly in the management of its own MPs. A significant number of Conservative backbenchers continue to press the PM for a rapid end to lockdown, pointing out the very real continuing harm to the economy, as well as the impact on pupil mental health and school learning. They say that the significant success of the vaccine rollout, alongside the promising data from Israel where case rates in the over 60s are dropping, means that England can unlock rapidly in the Spring.

The PM hinted today that we may well see an announcement next week about pupils returning at some point in March, followed by the wider plan to unwind lockdown due the week after. Yet for all the pressure from lockdown sceptics in the Conservative Party, the PM remains cautious. His scientific advisers point to concerns about new variants, and the fact that the UK workhorse jab from AstraZeneca may need to be tweaked and a vaccine booster delivered in the autumn. Equally, the evictions ban, furlough scheme and business support will have to be extended for another few months as the lockdown lifts.

The next few weeks will define not just how well the country adapts as it comes out of lockdown, but also the future of the Government. The vaccine rollout has been a huge success, but the PM needs to continue to walk that tightrope between protecting the health of the nation and reviving the economy. At some point, the Government will have to gently wean the country off the huge fiscal support package that it is pumping into the economy. That won’t come in time for the Budget, but the PM has a delicate balancing act deciding when. It is not an envious job.