A s early as next week, Boris Johnson must decide if England is making sufficient progress in suppressing the Covid pandemic through the vaccine programme to justify ending lockdown restrictions in July. He is increasingly likely to have to tell the country news that it will not want to hear. Friday’s announcement that cases of the Delta variant in the UK increased by 46% over the previous week to a total of 111,157 is daunting. The figures are a severe worsening, not the improvement for which Mr Johnson hoped.
The prime minister must level with the public about the implications for the summer and autumn. Those implications are not good. This is the sort of thing Mr Johnson finds difficult. But things have now been made a great deal harder for him by the admission of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, on Friday – in what will surely go down as one of the great euphemisms of the era – that he has breached social distancing regulations in his relationship with his departmental aide Gina Coladangelo.
Mr Hancock was forced to admit he had let people down. He certainly has. His private life would normally be his own affair. But he is in charge of the biggest public health effort of the past century. It is absolutely critical that it succeeds. If the health secretary does not stick to the rules, it becomes far harder for the government to demand high standards from the public. A year after the Dominic Cummings debacle, the Hancock breach risks making the government’s entire strategy a laughing stock. If Mr Johnson wants to avoid that, he will have to sack the health secretary.
Is the prime minister tough enough? His immediate response, declaring the matter closed, was characteristically insouciant. He should beware. Even before Friday, the UK’s readiness to allow up to 2,500 Uefa football officials to enter the country to watch Euro 2020 matches without following quarantine rules was already helping to undermine public trust. The Hancock affair has instantly provided a much richer soil in which such cynicism risks growing unchecked.
The nettle that ministers must grasp is their increasingly mixed messaging about the summer holidays. This week, under pressure from the travel industry, the transport department put a small number of extra destinations on its non-quarantine green list. Most European destinations remain on the amber list, where quarantine is required. The differences are often opaque. There are hints that UK tourists who have had two vaccinations will avoid quarantine on returning from amber list countries, yet no date has been given. This embodies an indecisive approach, the bane of the Johnson government throughout the pandemic, visible again over the Hancock affair.
Mr Johnson would like to be able to say that vaccines have brought Covid substantially under control and that the public is able to travel again. Both are certainly desirable. But his practical handling has become hopelessly unclear. It lacks both an overarching and sober public narrative – that the public must continue to be cautious while Covid remains virulent – and a degree of consistency and specificity which enables tourists and the tourism industry to make realistic plans within the overall imperative for caution. It does not help that ministers and sections of the media continue to present the foreign travel issues through a parochial lens of hedonistic self-advantage. There is too much indifference to the reality that rising UK Delta variant numbers now pose a clear threat to other countries.
Ministers have for months insisted that they are following the scientific advice for caution. Yet Covid cases are rising again. The test-and-trace system is not doing its job. Simultaneously, ministers are raising hopes that most regulations will be scrapped in time for the school holidays. This is another head-on collision between public health and politics in the making. It is not merely bad public policy. It also threatens Britain’s already fragile international standing. It must be averted. But that can only be done by acting now and by acting transparently – something the Johnson government is serially reluctant to do, as Friday’s events again laid bare.