With the government receiving a boost in the polls due to the success of the vaccine roll-out so far, the news that the UK is set to see reduced supply of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine during April is sure to send ripples of concern across Downing Street, especially as local elections are pencilled in for early May. This week we analyse the impact of the slowdown on the government’s plans to reopen the economy and take a look at the controversial Policing Bill, the scandal engulfing Nicola Sturgeon and the return of everyone’s favourite bogeyman, Dominic Cummings.
On Wednesday evening NHS England confirmed that there would be a “significant reduction” in the number of vaccines available from April, as a batch of five million AstraZeneca doses that were expected to be delivered from India has been delayed by four weeks. Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock nevertheless insisted that all adults would still be offered a vaccine by the end of July and that the roadmap out of lockdown would be unaffected by the news. A poll conducted by Ipsos Mori before the announcement saw the government extend its lead over Labour to 7%. Johnson will be keen to ensure that the government does not lose any support that the vaccine roll-out has given it, ahead of the local elections in May and the upcoming by-election in Hartlepool that was triggered by the resignation of Labour MP Mike Hill this week.
While the UK will see vaccine supply shortages in the upcoming weeks, 13 EU countries have suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after fears over reports that it leads to an increased risk of blood clotting. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) however swiftly concluded that the jab is “safe and effective”, with Italy and Spain subsequently reversing their suspensions. While there are concerns that these moves have undermined confidence in the vaccine across the continent, in Downing Street the government is likely to feel vindicated in its decision to not take part in the EMA’s vaccination programme, and will be keen to tout the UK’s own approach as a success of Brexit during the upcoming local election campaign.
Following the death of Sarah Everard and the controversy surrounding police action at last weekend’s vigil on Clapham Common, the Policing Bill came under renewed scrutiny this week as it made its way through the House of Commons. The prime minister insisted that the legislation was “very sensible” and included proposals to stop the early release of those convicted of sexual offenses. Labour disagrees, with leader Sir Keir Starmer calling on the PM to pass a new victims rights law, as in his view, the current bill contains nothing “meaningful” to protect women.
Labour has since gone further and accused the government of “effectively decriminalising rape”, owing to the low numbers of convictions in recent years. The Conservatives hit back, claiming the tweet was “dangerous fake news”, but the boldness of the Labour claim shows that the party believes that this issue is one where the government is vulnerable. As a result, the party will no doubt seek to use its opposition to the Policing Bill as a way to show how it would go further in introducing new measures to protect women. This is especially significant in light of the government being forced to accept a House of Lords amendment to the bill which will force the police to collect data on crimes that are motivated by misogyny.
While politics south of the border focused on the Policing Bill and enhancing protections for women, in Scotland, the UK’s most powerful female politician Nicola Sturgeon came under fresh scrutiny in the latest twist to the long-running Alex Salmond scandal. Following the first minister’s marathon eight hour evidence session before the committee spearheading the investigation earlier this month, media sources have reported that the committee is set to decide via a five-four verdict that Sturgeon had misled them by providing an “inaccurate” account of her meetings with Alex Salmond in 2018. The official findings are not set to be released until Tuesday, but the Scottish Conservatives are already calling for Sturgeon to resign in light of these allegations and are likely to table a no-confidence vote before the Scottish parliament heads into recess next week.
Ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections in May, the timing of these allegations could not come at a worse time for the SNP. The party had been keen to make its plans for a second independence referendum front and centre during the campaign, but will now be forced to spend time refuting damaging allegations about the first minister’s honesty and credibility. A separate independent report by the lawyer James Hamilton is also expected to be published shortly, and will judge whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code. If she is found to have done so willingly, she will be expected to resign her position which will only cause greater political turmoil. With the election so close, it is likely that Sturgeon will adopt a “let the people decide” approach, and fight to secure a new mandate to govern, although this scandal is unlikely to be forgiven or forgotten by the unionist parties any time soon.
Just when the country had thought it had seen the back of the prime minister’s infamous former adviser Dominic Cummings, he reappeared this week at an evidence session before the House of Commons science and technology select committee. While he was officially there to answer questions relating to the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), Cummings also managed to take some shots at former colleagues, with Matt Hancock in particular coming under fire. Cummings described how the department for health and social care was a “smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE” during March 2020 and was the reason that Downing Street had taken control over the vaccine roll-out directly.
At the start of the session, committee chair Greg Clark explained that Cummings had also agreed to provide evidence to a future inquiry on the pandemic. Given Cummings’ candid approach this week, Downing Street will be rightfully nervous about the revelations that he may provide the committee in the future. If Boris Johnson had thought that he no longer had to worry about his ex-advisor stealing the limelight, he will be sorely disappointed.
As the country gears up for the first local elections of Boris Johnson’s premiership, questions will continue to be asked around the potential slowdown in vaccinations as we head towards polling day. A significant reduction in supply could alter the national mood and make voters less likely to reward the government for the successful roll-out so far. Likewise, in Scotland the fallout from the Salmond inquiry will form a huge part of the election campaign and could have a big impact on the SNP’s ability to win a majority and seek the second independence referendum it so desperately craves. With election season almost upon us, these next few weeks are likely to be hugely significant as Britain’s two most powerful leaders seek to protect their hard earned political capital.