Andy Cowper: Data not dates, and all that

On Monday 14 June, the government announced a four week delay to ending covid-19 restrictions in England as had been planned from the 21 June. The announcement came after extensive leaks to the media over the preceding week—probably to soften up media, political, and public opinion—and was a predictable consequence of the government’s failure to take the Delta variant and the need for proper border controls seriously.

The published timeline on border controls emerging from the opposition, and the questions raised in the House of Commons from the shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth, the SNP’s Philippa Whitford, and Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson in response to the health secretary Matt Hancock’s update, have the potential to put real pressure on the government’s position.

The PM’s bodged briefing

Hancock’s statement followed a strikingly ineptly presented Downing Street briefing. During this, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson wrongly gave the end date of the additional four weeks as 29 July (these four extra weeks take us to 19 July). He repeatedly struggled to read from his autocue; and promised a better situation “once the adults of this company have been vaccinated.”

The prime minister’s answers to questions verged on babbling at points, and he seemed dreadfully briefed. Was Johnson’s performance so bad because he hated the thought of the inevitable critical reactions of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail? Or was it because he so fundamentally doesn’t want to restrict anybody’s liberty?

Announcing the delay in Parliament later that evening, Matt Hancock faced sharp questions about why India was left off the UK’s red list for two further weeks after Pakistan and Bangladesh were added on 9 April. Both countries had the same Delta variant, but at lower levels of prevalence.

Salient points were raised by the Labour shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth, the Labour MP Barbara Keeley, home affairs select committee chair Yvette Cooper, and the Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson. Hancock’s answers were evasive or unconvincing. He may not worry about the opposition, but could become concerned about the benches behind him.

In clear contrast to the voluble and warm reception he got from them in the aftermath of the unsubstantiated Dominic Cummings allegations, the Tory backbenches were notably subdued in their support for the health sSecretary. It’s too early to call a sea-change in the government’s post-December popularity surge that coincided with the vaccines roll-out, but it’ll be interesting to see if this registers in the opinion polls.

Supply and demand

The questions now for the government are around the UK’s supply of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines over the next four weeks (and then subsequent follow-up doses), given that it is mainly young people who remain to be vaccinated.

Another question is about the workload on primary care. GPs have taken on much of the vaccination work, but the rising demand for all NHS services from those put off from or unable to access care during past peaks of NHS demand are affecting primary care as much as every other bit of the system.

The prime minister and health secretary have made much of their desire for the unlocking process to be “cautious but irreversible.” If, as some modelling suggests, a new peak of hospitalisations and deaths follows in about four weeks’ time, how confident will anyone be that the 19 July date can be delivered? Data, not dates, and all that.


Andy Cowper is a freelance journalist and editor of Health Policy Insight.

Competing interests: none declared.