British Chancellor Rishi Sunak has reportedly sided with scores of Tory backbench COVID rebels after the government and its advisors were accused of "moving the goalposts" on ending the lockdown.
Sources close to Sunak told Thursday's Daily Telegraph he wanted the current third national lockdown to be the "fat lady sings moment" — the final bout of coronavirus restrictions.
"Rishi is concerned that the scientists have been moving the goalposts in recent weeks," a source said. "It's no longer just about hospitalisations and protecting the NHS but cases and case numbers."
Sunak was said to be concerned that the government's senior scientific and medical advisors were shifting the focus from protecting the National Health Service (NHS) from being overwhelmed to the far more ambitious goal of reducing cases to near-zero. At Wednesday's weekly Downing Street press conference, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said that while infections had fallen sharply from their peak, hospital admissions remained high and the lockdown must continue.
The chancellor came under renewed pressure from both business and trade union leaders this week to extend the furlough payment scheme for laid-off workers until the summer — or even the end of the year.
Moving the Goalposts
Just hours after the Telegraph report Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi appeared to shift the goalposts again, suggesting the draconian restrictions should stay in place until all nine of the government's priority groups — some 32 million people — had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We’ll set out our target after we’ve hit the February 15 target," Zahawi told the BBC on Thursday morning. “But you can see in the next ten or so days, we’ve got to do another — touching five million and so we keep that rate up, we will very quickly go down the list of the top nine.”
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government's SAGE advisory committee, echoed Zahawi's comments. "Once the most vulnerable people, particularly those over 50 and those with chronic illnesses, are vaccinated then yes I think we can see a significant return to normality," he said, adding ominously that the UK could be "more or less back to normal for the summer".
The rapid pace of the NHS immunisation campaign, which has seen more than 10 million of the 14 million-most vulnerable receive at least one dose, had raised hopes that the lockdown would be lifted around the time schools are set to reopen to all pupils on March 8, allowing three weeks for the vaccine to give them immunity.
That 14 million comprises the top four 'cohorts' prioritised by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) — Collectively all over-70s, care home residents and staff and the "extremely clinically vulnerable". The next five groups include all over-50s in five-year cohorts, and all adults under 65 with medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus.
At the current rate of round 350,000 jabs-per-day, it would take until April 7 to give first doses to all nine cohorts — not taking into account their booster doses — and the three-week lag for immunity to kick in would delay the end of lockdown until at least May.
NHS data has shown that less than one per cent of the 109,000 UK deaths so far have been among healthy under-60s.
Tory backbencher Mark Harper, chairman of the lockdown-sceptic COVID Recovery Group of some 70 MPs, tried to pin Zahawi down on a definite timetable for lifting the restrictions during a debate in Parliament later on Thursday.
Harper asked if "Once the first nine groups have been vaccinated, accounting for 99 per cent of deaths and about 80 per cent of hospitalisations, that would be the right time for all restrictions to be relaxed so that we can get back to living as normal and get our children back to school and the economy fully open".
— Mark Harper (@Mark_J_Harper) February 4, 2021
Earlier Harper told Talk Radio that the "hugely powerful efficacy" of vaccines would make it possible to "unlock the economy and society" soon.
— talkRADIO (@talkRADIO) February 4, 2021
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Mail Online: "The scientists are giving them all sorts of new reasons why you can't unlock. Of course for the scientists it doesn't make any difference really because they get paid anyway."