Boris Johnson “Thinks the Gloom Has Been Overdone” on Indian Variant

There are reports that there is increasing optimism across Government that step 4 of the roadmap – full reopening on June 21st – will be able to proceed as planned, with Boris Johnson said to be unpersuaded that the data suggests a need for delay. Katy Balls in the Spectator has the inside track.

As things stand, Johnson is unpersuaded that the data suggests there will have to be a delay. Instead, he thinks some of the gloom has been overdone. Suggestions that the chances of all restrictions being lifted next month are “close to nil” have not landed well with ministers. “Anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen doesn’t know,” says one peeved Government figure.

At this week’s cabinet, attendees were given a Covid presentation by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, which suggested that the data had not got significantly worse since Friday. Downing Street hopes that in a week or so they will have a clearer sense of how much of a problem the Indian variant is – most crucially, how transmissible it is. The current understanding in No. 10 is that it’s a little more contagious but not as bad as originally feared. One minister says there is a growing sense that “things are not as bad as they first seemed”.

Crucially, the vaccines appear to work against the variant. As long as that remains the case, any extension of lockdown measures will be a hard sell to Tory MPs. “There is a strong sense of relief among the public that the crisis is over, we can’t go back there,” says a minister. Concerned Tory MPs have been making their opposition to any delay known to the whips. “It would mean we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” says one. 

While things ought to be clearer in a week or so once more comprehensive data is in, the more likely scenario for June 21st right now is not a delay but a push to water down what an “end to restrictions” looks like in practice. “Everyone is using the variant to get their favourite political argument over the line – whether it’s keeping social distancing, border controls, or vaccine passports,” says one official. However, what encourages MPs and ministers who wish to see an end to restrictions is that they believe Johnson ultimately wants the same. “We have a Prime Minister who given half a chance would lift restrictions on everything,” notes a minister.

Depressing that we have Government ministers who see an overblown panic about a variant as an opportunity to advance various illiberal causes such as social distancing, border restrictions and vaccine passports. But doesn’t that just sum up the Government response to the whole pandemic – unscrupulous actors ready to exploit fear as an opportunity to advance various illiberal causes?

If Boris thinks the gloom is being overdone about the Indian variant, wait till he sees how well U.S. states that reopened months ago are doing compared to the overcautious and, we now know, entirely reversible timetable he has imposed on poor England. If he really would lift all restrictions on everything “given half a chance”, why doesn’t he take a leaf out of Florida, Texas and numerous other states’ books and do just that? Who is denying him that “chance”?

Here are the latest graphs on test positivity in the Indian variant “hotspots”, showing a notable lack of growth.

Stop Press: SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward appeared on BBC Breakfast to claim the Indian variant risks pushing Britain into a “third wave” of coronavirus and to call for all travel to be “minimised”. The Telegraph reports:

Prof Andrew Hayward, who researches infectious diseases at University College London, said he was “very concerned” about the Indian variant due to its higher transmissibility.

Asked on BBC Breakfast whether the country was at the start of the third wave, he said “I think so” and called for travel to be “minimised full-stop”.

“I think what we can see is that this strain can circulate very effectively, although it was originally imported through travel to India, it’s spread fairly effectively first of all within households and now more broadly within communities, so I don’t really see why it wouldn’t continue to spread in other parts of the country,” he said. 

“Obviously we’re doing everything we can to contain the spread, but it’s likely that more generalised measures may start to be needed to control it.” 

Since the Government seems to have no intention of imposing new restrictions at the moment, it won’t take long to see whether this latest prophecy of doom comes true.

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