20 July 2021

Covid policy is being driven by PR, not public health

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Boris Johnson is supposed to be one of the great political communicators. He may have scant ideology and little will to govern, the story goes, but he’s got a unique power to connect with people and keep them on side.

Likewise, Rishi Sunak is one of the most skilful PR operators in the Cabinet. Like his boss, even those who think his political judgement isn’t great tend to concede that the man who turned himself into a household name by buying the nation a meal out (or ten) can spin himself well.

Yet on Sunday both men ran headlong into an excruciating communications fiasco, and lent credence to the idea of ‘one rule for them’ which could yet be the line that breaks, or at least loosens, the Prime Minister’s spell on the electorate.

Personally, I don’t think the problem is that the most senior members of the Government were on a necessarily limited-access pilot to avoid self-isolating. That’s perfectly defensible.

Rather, the problem is that both men bottled it. By u-turning, they lent credibility to the idea that there was something grubby, and even unjust, about the scheme. As a result, Downing Street has now pulled out of it altogether, which only bolsters this effect even more. The Government looks guilty.

How did they not see this coming? After all, a big block of ice floated past their bow only a few weeks ago when Michael Gove turned out, very handily, to have been on the pilot programme after he was exposed to Covid-19 at a sporting event. It surely ought to have been obvious that this was the sort of thing they were going to need to defend in the press.

Instead, it looks as if Johnson was caught so off-guard by the backlash that he did what he is usually extremely reluctant to do: give in to press pressure. (Perhaps Sunak move first, and force his hand?)

There are other reasons to be worried by the u-turn too. Yesterday was ‘Freedom Day’, and the entire basis for the wholesale unlocking of English society was the success of the vaccine programme. Both the Prime Minister and Chancellor have been double-jabbed. If even they are going to be plunged back into self-isolation for the rest of us, what hope is there for the wider economy?

In fact, one gets the impression that the Government’s entire policy on this may now owe more to PR than public health. How else to explain the decision to try and exclude NHS workers – who are most likely to be exposed to Covid-19 from sick patients and to risk exposing it to other vulnerable people – from the self-isolation requirement?

So too with stories that the Government has been slow to move away from ‘Hands – Face – Space’, despite the overwhelming importance of ventilation, because Johnson came up with the slogan himself and is reluctant to change it.

None of this will increase public confidence in the track and trace system. Indeed, we must take the apparently overwhelming outrage at Johnson and Sunak with a pinch of salt, given the high percentage of people who have simply deleted or disabled the app themselves.

In fact, a badly-handled ‘pingdemic’ could squander the goodwill the Government has earned through the vaccine programme.

We are already, one suspects, reaching the point at which the ‘freedom dividend’ for unlocking starts to dwindle. Yesterday’s euphoric scenes from the nations nightclubs were a tonic for those of us who enjoy them, but as I noted previously, we’re a minority. If there is a big spike in cases, with all the attendant inconvenience of getting pinged, many of the Government’s voters may take a dim view of its decision to restore the frivolous freedoms of others when they were doing just fine already.

And ministers will need that goodwill. Whilst Johnson’s instinct may be to hoard political capital, resting atop it like a mop-haired dragon, his Government will need to spend it wisely if it wants to deliver planning reform, new taxes to fund social care, and make tough public spending decisions to help the national finances recover from the awesome interventions of the past 18 months.

He is surely also aware of the shallowness of his support amongst Conservative MPs. Johnson was elevated to the leadership because he could win. If he loses the magic touch with the electorate, his position as Prime Minister will hang by a much more slender thread than is usual for someone who secured an 80-seat majority less than two years before.

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Henry Hill is News Editor at ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.