Will Boris Johnson Face More Awkward Moments With His Scientists This Winter?

You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.

It was only a matter of time before the UK’s twin preoccupations of 2020 – Covid and Brexit – really collided. Within minutes of the 7am announcement that British regulators had approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, business secretary Alok Sharma and health secretary Matt Hancock tried to stick a Union Jack on the news.

While Sharma boasted that “we will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease”, Hancock said that the UK was able to achieve a faster approval than the EU “because of Brexit”. Yet within a few hours, the MHRA regulator June Raine pointed out she had in fact operated under European law, which runs out in the UK at the end of the year.‌

The PM’s spokesman refused several times to endorse the Hancock line, and got into a muddle about Sharma’s (read the Lobby exchanges in all their painful glory in my Twitter thread HERE). Even Boris Johnson himself, never knowingly unavailable for a bit of Brussels bashing, refused to hit the “Brexit Bonus” softballs fed him by the Sun and Express in the later press conference.‌

In fact, it was deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam who most ridiculed the suggestion of Little Englander triumphalism, pointing not only to the German-American teams who developed the vaccine but also the wider global cooperation to combat Covid-19.

And what was most notable in the No.10 briefing, and earlier in PMQs, was how unusually cautious Johnson was in hailing the vaccine progress. Acutely aware of the danger that the public may see it as an excuse to drop their guard, he said people should “not get their hopes up too soon” about being rapidly vaccinated.

Van-Tam underlined the point by warning the public that “you have to take the vaccine...low uptake will almost certainly make restrictions last longer”. That wasn’t a direct threat to link an area’s vaccine rates to lifting tiers, more a home truth that vaccinations can get the R number right down.

But the whole press briefing ended on a truly awkward note when the PM and Van-Tam differed over the longer-term impacts of the virus on public behaviour. In the first explicit reprimand of one of his scientists, Johnson asserted himself after Van-Tam suggested long-term mask-wearing and hand-sanitising “maybe a good thing”.‌

The PM’s line – “on the other hand, we may want to get back to life as pretty much as close to normal” – was quite the public slapdown. And when the deputy medical officer later explained he meant some individuals would stick with mask-wearing, Johnson sounded incredulous at the suggestion that the UK could copy Japan or South Korea. “As in the Far East? Well, who knows?”‌

Many of Johnson’s allies will say he was well within his rights to avoid the long-term downer, not least as he knows the promise of a brighter 2021 is crucial to getting people to stick to more lockdown-style curbs this winter. Others will say he sounded like he was putting politics ahead of Van-Tam’s honest judgement.

Van-Tam tends to be plain speaking, and that’s his main asset. He famously made clear Dominic Cummings should not have broken Covid rules earlier this year, and was not seen for months thereafter. Given his importance on the vaccines front, a new sin-binning is unlikely, but the awkward moment with the PM can’t help.

There was another “Far East” lesson on Wednesday, from former chief medical officer Sally Davies. She told MPs on the science and tech committee that the UK’s advisers failed to spot that Covid was not like flu. “We did not – our infectious disease experts – really believe that another Sars would get to us, and I think it’s a form of British exceptionalism.” That was a reminder to some Johnson supporters that his own scientists were themselves fallible early in this pandemic.

It is perhaps precisely because Johnson has gone along with the scientists’ advice on “tough tiers” that he chafed when pushed further. But further tensions still beckon, not least as his plans for “community testing”, as a way out of tough restrictions, lack concrete data.

And one of the most pressing tensions will come in a fortnight, when that “meaningful review” (will it be as meaningful as Theresa May’s “meaningful votes”?) arrives on December 16. The PM told MPs yesterday he wanted “granular” assessments of “human geography”. In tonight’s briefing he said: “We are going to make sure we are as local and as sensitive as we can possibly be to local achievement and local incidence of the disease.”

That contrasts with his own words only six days ago, when he said smaller tiered areas would lead to “loads of very complicated sub-divisions” that would cost clarity. He also made plain on Friday that contagion was unavoidable, warning “unless you beat the problem in the high-incidence area, the low-incidence area I’m afraid starts to catch up.” Has he ditched those concerns just to avoid another Tory rebellion?

No one has yet asked Chris Whitty or Patrick Vallance, let alone Sage, whether a shift to tiers based on individual boroughs would simply mean the virus again running out of control. If the PM shifts back to his hyperlocal “whackamole” approach, it may be Van-Tam and the awkward squad of scientists he ends up whacking hardest - as well as his own hopes of a sunlit spring.