It’s almost the end of half term (not that that really means anything these days) and after a relatively subdued political week, where COVID rates continue to fall and post-Brexit talks linger-on in the background, all eyes will be on Boris Johnson next week as he prepares to deliver his roadmap out of lockdown.
Complex COVID conundrum
New data published from Imperial College London's React 1 study found that infections have dropped by two-thirds across England since lockdown began, with an 80% fall in London. This follows on from a positive prediction from Dr Clive Dix, interim chair of the UK’s vaccine taskforce who outlined that every adult in the UK could receive both doses of a coronavirus vaccine by August or September "or maybe sooner if we need to". However, while it is clear that the third national lockdown is working, rates of COVID-19 are similar to levels seen in late September 2020 when laws prohibiting social gatherings of more than six people came into effect.
Northern Ireland has already adopted a cautious approach to reopening with ministers there deciding to extend lockdown restrictions until 1 April. However, children aged four to seven will go back to school on 8 March, which aligns with plans in England for schools to reopen on the same date.
While largely positive, the React 1 study has sparked further concerns over the reopening of schools after researchers found that the highest prevalence of the virus was among children aged five to 12 and young people aged 18 to 24 - with around one in 110 testing positive in these age groups. With many teachers and children yet to be vaccinated, there are concerns that a mass reopening of schools could severely affect long-term plans to successfully ‘unlock’ the country.
These findings present a complex picture for Boris Johnson and his team to assess before he announces his roadmap out of lockdown on Monday. Reopen too rapidly, and this could undo the effective work of the vaccination programme; open too slowly and Johnson may risk the ire of the public, as well as dissenting voices within his own party.
Brexit’s back baby!
In a sign that Brexit is nowhere near being fully completed, Boris Johnson has brought Lord Frost into the cabinet to implement the Brexit deal and forge a new relationship with the EU. In doing so, Frost replaces Michael Gove as co-chair of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee.
Lord Frost had been due to become the UK's new national security adviser earlier this month but was replaced days before he was due to start, with many parliamentarians including Theresa May raising concerns over his lack of ministerial experience. This appointment gives Lord Frost a large amount of control, allowing him to oversee policy. It also concentrates power in one department rather than responsibility for the EU being shared between several departments - such as the Foreign Office and International Trade.
This appointment follows on from weeks of skirmishes between Michael Gove and the European Commission vice president, Maros Sefcovic, which first kicked-off earlier in February after the EU threatened - and then abandoned - an attempt to invoke Article 16 as part of the bloc's row with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Attention was then turned to the Northern Ireland protocol, with Michael Gove writing to Maros Sefcovic in a bid to alter or scrap the protocol altogether, a move strongly supported by leaders from the DUP.
The appointment of Frost, however, has led to claims that Gove has been ‘sidelined’ by Boris Johnson. Critics of Gove feel that he could have been more robust with the European Commission vice president over the recent Northern Ireland row. This sentiment was borne out by Brexit darling Kate Hoey who celebrated Frost’s appointment but stressed that he needed to “help remove the protocol and give people in NI the same rights as the rest of the UK unlike what Michael Gove has done”.
Either way, Frost’s appointment clearly demonstrates that Brexit is far from being completed and there could be more clashes on the horizon with Frost expected to confront the EU over its “overly legalistic” and "heavy-handed" interpretation of the new trade agreement.
Labour leadership lingo
On Thursday, leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer delivered a speech titled A New Chapter for Britain to moderate fanfare. This was an opportunity for Labour to clearly set out its challenge to the government, offering an alternative to over a decade of Conservative rule.
The speech aimed to evoke the spirit of 1945 and of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, which oversaw the rebuilding of a nation ravaged by the second world war. This was seen in some of the language used, with Starmer stating: “We know what the Conservatives say they want to do to: They want to build back. But I don’t want to go back. We can’t return to business as usual”. However, his central attack line was that Conservative ideology has made Britain vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, with Starmer claiming that the Conservative party now offers only a “roadmap to yesterday”.
A keynote speech from the leader of the Labour party was necessary, as recent weeks have seen a level of constant criticism from internal Labour party factions such as Momentum over the party’s lack of urgency and leadership. This was perhaps compounded by the recent extension of the Conservatives’ lead in the polls, with YouGov, Survation and Ipsos MORI all posting small leads for the Tories.
Close allies of Keir Starmer have argued that during his first year in office he has made the Labour party look credible again, appealing to ‘red wall’ voters the Labour party lost in 2019. However, if infighting persists and the party takes a direction which fails to take both sides with it, then Labour once again risks being cut adrift and left looking like a party firmly rooted in a position of opposition.
Next week is all about Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, and while it will certainly provide welcome clarity as to when we can expect things to return to a semblance of normalcy, it will be interesting to see if this roadmap will also contain details of his plans to “build back better”.
Elsewhere, Michael Gove will be meeting with his counterpart Maros Sefcovic on the 24 February as part of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, which will be an opportunity for both parties to bury the hatchet and move forward in resolving some of the challenges presented by the Northern Ireland protocol.
If Johnson and Gove get this right, then perhaps the government can put the memories of a disastrous 2020 behind it. For better or for worse, Johnson has effectively delivered on his main election promise – getting Brexit done – and his government’s vaccination programme is seeing broad support from the public. Eighty-six percent of people think the government is doing well with securing vaccine supplies; 78% think that the government is doing well at rolling them out. Obviously, there are many more trials and tribulations set to come, but for the moment the Conservatives can just about catch their breath and prepare themselves for the next challenge on the horizon.