Why Is Boris Johnson Playing Down The Vaccine Impact?

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Ever since last March, Boris Johnson has had a habit of making remarks about the Covid pandemic that cause a few eyebrows to raise. From “I’ve been shaking hands with everybody” to it would be “inhuman” to “cancel Christmas”, the PM has displayed a gift of the gaffe. Or as the late Prince Philip described it, “dontopedalogy”, aka foot-in-mouth disease.

Yet on Tuesday, Johnson raised a few eyebrows not for his slapdash bonhomie, but for his apparently excessive caution in ascribing the reason for the dramatic drop in Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths. “It is very, very important for everybody to understand that the reduction in these numbers...has not been achieved by the vaccination programme,” he said. “People don’t, I think, appreciate that it’s the lockdown that has been overwhelmingly important in delivering this improvement.”

Some felt that this messaging was odd, not least given the emphasis the PM has placed on the vaccine rollout in helping his roadmap this spring. Yet to me, it felt much more like confirmation that chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientist Patrick Vallance have an influence in No.10 greater than ever before. 

Whitty and Vallance have both been making the case for weeks that it is the UK’s hard lockdown (and remember it was one of the most stringent in the world) that is responsible for the unnatural suppression of the virus. Both have been tentative about the impact of vaccination on transmission, even though they applaud the huge progress in protection for vulnerable groups. Both have warned of more deaths (something else the PM tried to soften us up for).

And even the most optimistic assessments of the “vaccine effect” accept that while the programme has made a material difference to deaths in the elderly, the overwhelming factor has been the lack of household mixing and basic human contact that provides the rocket fuel for this awful virus.

The PM is also naturally worried that some of the public will seize too prematurely on freedoms in the roadmap, and move too fast. As one JCVI member put it today, scenes of people outside pubs are fine but not when those scenes show they are cheek by jowl. Yes being outside cuts the risk, but if you’re coughing or shouting (hey maybe even laughing) inches from someone else’s face, the virus can take off again.

The one sentiment heard within No.10 more than any other these days is that the whole roadmap could be at risk if unlocking goes faster than planned. In a little-noticed part of Whitty’s evidence to the Sci and Tech Select Committee before Easter, he hinted he was worried that each stage of the roadmap had just too many relaxations all coming at once. 

News of the South African variant outbreak in south London may well be another prompt for Johnson’s caution. It may already be too late to stop that outbreak getting bigger by the day, even with surge testing. The next review date ahead of the May 17 third stage of the roadmap, and the avalanche of unlocking that entails, isn’t really that far away.

One further cause for concern was the new return date for universities. May 17 is seen by some academics as yet another example of the Department for Education’s failure to consult, especially as many universities will stop teaching by then. Some students will have been at home since before Christmas and not had a minute’s in-person tuition since they started higher education last September.

The vice-chancellor of Portsmouth University put it well when he told SkyNews: “Students can now buy a book on British history in Waterstones and discuss it with a tattoo artist while they have their body decorated, but they cannot do the same thing in a Covid-secure environment with their university lecturer.” 

With many lecturers now vaccinated, the May 17 date seems even more odd, not least as sixth formers (who are just one year younger than uni freshers) have been fully back at school since early March. It may be that the PM has seen some figures and projections that suggest the need for an ultra cautious approach. And given his stress on the “lost” generation of young people hit by Covid, barring students from a full education (and social life it entails) is almost as striking as him playing down the role of vaccines.

The frankly surreal decision to halt Covid press conferences this week, out of a misguided fear that somehow the public would see them as unseemly during an extended period of mourning for Prince Philip, means these issues can’t be pressed with the PM. He may believe that short clips of his downbeat assessments will worry us all into Covid compliance. But that’s no substitute for real transparency. Or does he have something worth hiding?