Cabinet “doves” have claimed victory in a monthlong battle that has raged at the top of government, securing a more cautious easing of coronavirus lockdown measures than sought by “hawks” who had wanted a rapid lifting of restrictions.
Ahead of Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on Sunday evening, where he will give details of a “roadmap” for the phased relaxation of lockdown measures, BuzzFeed News can reveal details of the deeply politicised and at times heated debate across Downing Street, cabinet, and the wider Conservative party that has taken place behind the scenes since the PM was discharged from hospital.
It can be revealed that:
• Some senior Number 10 advisers, cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, and “a clear majority” of Tory MPs had initially lobbied for a “rival” exit strategy, privately arguing that the lockdown should be lifted more quickly than Johnson will announce tomorrow.
• But when Johnson returned after being hospitalised with the virus, he chose to back another group of Downing Street aides, senior ministers, and officials who had called for a “safety first” approach. His chief aide Dominic Cummings’ view has also moved in favour of this position over the last few weeks.
• Most of the lockdown measures will remain in place after Sunday, with piecemeal changes to the number of times people can leave their homes and head to open spaces, followed by a staggered lifting of other restrictions, reopening schools and the wider economy over the following weeks if key data improves.
• Senior ministers have expressed fury at what one described as “weeks of insane briefing” to the media, accusing government hawks of trying to force Johnson into relaxing more measures, and claiming some newspapers were pursuing an anti-lockdown agenda because of fears about sales.
When the prime minister chairs a meeting of his top team on Sunday to finalise his announcement to the country that evening, he will face a cabinet, Downing Street, and party that has been riven by disagreement over what to do.
Johnson, who in March was initially extremely reluctant to impose a lockdown on Britain that went against his instinctively liberal political ideology, is now one of the more reluctant to lift it, sources told BuzzFeed News.
While he has been criticised by opposition figures for being “too slow” to enter lockdown, the prime minister is now one of the leading doves — a group of senior Tories who want to prioritise preventing a second wave of infections over reopening the economy and ending restrictions on people’s daily lives.
The doves believe they have pushed back the general pace of how restrictions will be eased by around two to three weeks, compared to provisional plans worked on by cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill and cabinet office officials while Johnson was in hospital.
The most vocal member of this more cautious group has been the health secretary, Matt Hancock, whose internal positioning and handling of the government’s testing and tracing policies put him deeply at odds with some hawk advisers in Downing Street.
Hancock has been on the receiving end of multiple negative briefings from government figures, including a Sunday Times story calling him “Matt Handjob” and a Telegraph front page that quoted Downing Street sources slamming his 100,000 tests per day target.
The main argument put forward by the doves for a slower easing of measures is that the data shows the UK is simply not ready to come out of lockdown.
The latest advice from experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is that the number of new daily cases is still too high to countenance any significant lifting of restrictions without causing an immediate second spike in infections.
Any more than the most limited lifting of some measures would risk sending the reproduction number — the R0 — back above one, which SAGE has said would lead to the virus again spreading out of control.
While the UK’s capacity to test coronavirus cases has improved, its ability to contact trace remains inadequate to be able to accelerate the departure from lockdown.
SAGE has said the government needs to be able to test every new case, trace everyone they have been in contact with, test them as well, and then isolate those who have the virus. The government is currently “weeks” away from being able to do so, insiders said, and SAGE has warned it is not safe to drastically release measures until then.
“The last thing we want is a to-me-to-you Chuckle Brothers situation where we have to go in and out of lockdown,” a Whitehall source said, adding that ministers will look closely at what happens to Germany as it eases restrictions.
Serology data gathered in the last two weeks has also concerned government experts. While chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said back in March that he expected around 60% of the population to eventually contract the virus, achieving “herd immunity”, it is currently believed that the percentage of those who have had it is in the low teens or high single figures. This also raises the possibility of an extremely deadly second wave.
Cummings, who at the beginning of the pandemic was said to have endorsed the controversial herd immunity approach, has also become more dovish in recent weeks, allies of the PM’s chief aide said.
At one meeting, Cummings told colleagues he had been reading about how countries which lifted their lockdowns following the 1918 flu epidemic had been hit by second waves that caused a larger economic hit than those who kept their restrictions in place. This “conversion” in favour of ongoing lockdown surprised some present.