Boris Johnson’s secret meeting ended in tiers — but it could have been worse

Boris Johnson could not quite decide if his attempts to channel Winston Churchill in the fight against the coronavirus had reached the equivalent of the Battle of Britain, when national survival was secured, or El Alamein, when the slow advance to victory began.

At a time of crisis, how good is Boris Johnson at making decisions? – Owl

Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler 

It was 8.15pm on Wednesday when the prime minister began summing up the conclusions of a closely guarded meeting of eight ministers that decided tier levels across England and the fate of millions. Several times the prime minister conjured up his hero’s spirit: “Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?” he mused. After what one witness described as “several mixed metaphors”, Johnson settled on: “I think we’re at the beginning of the end of the second half.”

The prime minister’s verbal contortions illustrate the dilemma for a government unsure whether imposing new control tiers is the final fix before a vaccine and mass testing save the day, or another false dawn that heralds a long winter of discontent that will stretch to Easter and beyond.

Wednesday’s meeting decided which areas would be in which tiers. Its conclusions have enraged MPs and council leaders in largely Covid-free areas who have been coupled with virus hotspots. The real story of that meeting is that it might have been worse. The story of the next few months is that it still might be.

“We’ve got to sort this out,” Johnson said, opening the meeting, before handing over to Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who presented to the virtual meeting for 20 minutes. The data, Hancock argued, left little room for doubt where most of the country should be placed. With the virus falling, but not fast enough, Manchester was always going to be tier 3 — not least because of tense relations with its mayor, Andy Burnham.

Liverpool — the guinea pig for mass testing — would get a reprieve. “Liverpool had to be in tier 2 to show you can turn these things around,” said one minister.

Hancock focused on the difficult marginal areas. The word that kept coming up was “contagion”. Stratford-upon-Avon is largely clear of Covid-19, but it is near Solihull, which is “really bad”, and people travel there to work and shop. The same problem arises in Kent, where the Medway towns have infection rates double the rest of the county and many times those of rural areas.

Throughout the meeting, the ministers discussed breaking the Covid zones down to district council level, as many Tory MPs wanted. In the end, they all agreed this was impractical. “We kept running up against the contagion effect,” one said. “Clarity of messaging was also going to be a problem.”

The crunch concerned London. Hancock admitted that across the capital “the numbers are trending down”. In much of south London, infection rates are low. In Newham in the east, and around Ealing in the west, they are sky high. The health secretary proposed three options: the whole city in tier 2 or tier 3, or most in tier 2, with the worst pockets in tier 3.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, had fought before the meeting to ensure all three tiers would allow non-essential retailers and services such as hairdressers to remain open and the former 10pm curfew be extended to 11pm.

He backed tier 2 and so — with caveats — did Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, and Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary.

It was Michael Gove who demanded the most draconian crackdown, going further even than Hancock by declaring: “It’s got to be tier 3 across the whole of London.” The Cabinet Office minister revived warnings from the Sage advisory group of scientists that hospitals could be swamped over winter. “He did a proper, three-minute-long speech which seemed designed to ensure his views got out there,” said one of those present.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor and the most outspoken advocate of keeping the economy open, was too busy with the spending review to attend the meeting, sending John Glen, the economic secretary to the Treasury, in his place.

Crucially, Glen was armed by Treasury officials with key data on the economic damage that would be caused by putting London in the top tier in the run-up to Christmas, the busiest shopping time of the year.

Glen questioned Hancock’s data, declaring there was “a lag” in the health secretary’s figures. He also argued that “tier 2 is like the old tier 3”, saying Sage had previously advised ministers that would be enough to reduce infections and a further crackdown was not needed.

The Treasury’s trump card was figures showing that if London was put in tier 2 the restrictions would mean 50,000 jobs were put at risk, many of them in hospitality. The kicker was that if the capital was placed in tier 3 the number of jobs at risk would rise to a staggering 550,000. The difference was potentially half a million jobs — about one in nine of all jobs in the capital.

Glen’s intervention, coupled with the knowledge that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, was “threatening to kick the f*** off if London went into tier 3”, led Johnson to make his decision: “I’ve listened to Michael, but we’ve got to think about the economic situation as well. My view is that we should have London in tier 2.”

In Downing Street they regard this plan as an attempt to “build a bridge from here to Easter”, to keep a lid on the virus until the twin battalions of what Johnson calls “the cavalry” or “the artillery” arrive in the shape of a vaccine or more widespread mass testing.

Tory MPs are in uproar at the plans, with 70 having written a letter of protest and about 50 planning to vote against their own government on Tuesday when parliament is asked to approve the scheme.

Labour will wait until tomorrow before deciding how to vote but the Tory chief whip, Mark Spencer, told Johnson on Wednesday night: “This is going to be difficult but we’ll get it through because the opposition won’t oppose it.”

But last night Johnson wrote a letter to the 70 rebels, pledging that some areas being put into tier 3 will be allowed to move into tier 2 in mid-December and announcing that the whole tiers system will be abandoned in February unless MPs vote to extend it.

Despite the climbdown, the Covid Recovery Group of rebels, co-ordinated by Steve Baker, a veteran of Brexit rebellions, is demanding that the government publishes impact assessments of the plans before the vote.

Senior officials do not think the economic document will calm things. It will combine Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and Bank of England figures into an “apocalyptic” analysis of how the economy is likely to shrink by up to 12% this year and be between 3% and 6% smaller than it would have been in the long term. “We aren’t going to sugar-coat things,” a Treasury source said.

Treasury officials, stung by public scepticism about their predictions over Brexit, will not present nationwide jobs warnings, but if the dire predictions about London were extrapolated across all the 23 million people who will be in tier 3 it would mean between one million and two million jobs are at risk.

In a virtual meeting with Tory backbenchers last week, Johnson told MPs that the OBR was “too gloomy” about the economy bouncing back.

Even before last night’s letter, he ordered that the first review of the new tiers on December 16 be “a real moment” in which millions will be moved from tier 3 down to tier 2.

“In two more weeks we will have more data on how the national lockdown has helped bring the numbers down,” a senior figure said.

“There are a load of places that are on the borderline between 2 and 3 and by mid-December the data should allow some to move down.”

The biggest of those might be Manchester. Edward Argar, the health minister, was asked repeatedly by MPs on a Zoom call on Thursday about what the exit strategy is for those areas in tier 3.

An MP from Greater Manchester who was on the call said: “He just couldn’t answer the question. Some of us believe Andy Burnham has pissed off Matt Hancock so much, we will be in lockdown in perpetuity.”

But it is now clear Burnham has been tipped the wink by ministers that his region will be downgraded to tier 2. An ally said: “We are about two weeks behind Liverpool so we see no reason why we won’t be in tier 2. We have been reassured that the review will be meaningful.” That is supported by senior figures in No 10. “December 16 is a big deal,” one added.

If this helps to placate Tory backbenchers, it will put the prime minister into conflict with the scientists. Sage minutes, shown to ministers last week, reveal that the experts remain implacably opposed to any loosening of the rules in the run-up to Christmas.

They predict that the R number, a rating of the virus’s ability to spread, could double from just under one to about two, leading to exponential growth. On Friday the scientists advised against singing, dancing, playing board games or hugging relatives at Christmas.

No 10 is furious with the Department of Health, where senior figures have briefed MPs that they would like to impose a fourth, higher tier — rebranded as “3-plus” — in January if Christmas sends infections up. A No 10 source said: “They have been pushing this for weeks. It is simply not going to happen.” Hancock denies this is his view.

Downing Street is similarly quick to leap on overly optimistic briefings by officials elsewhere in Whitehall that the purchase of hundreds of millions of quick- turnaround “lateral flow” tests mean a “test and release” scheme could be set up to enable theatres to reopen for pantomimes and for people to attend the traditional Boxing Day football matches.

Johnson told MPs at the 1922 committee: “We have cornered the market” in the tests, but a No 10 source said: “We are some way off that.”

The prime minister’s inner circle is cautious about predicting the end is in sight. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, has privately warned senior members of the civil service that they will continue to work from home until at least Easter.

A Whitehall source said: “The strategy they are working towards is to try and get things back to normal in the spring but that will depend on how successfully they roll out the vaccination scheme.”

There are some grounds for optimism. This weekend Sharma signed a deal for another two million doses of the Moderna vaccine, bringing the total number to seven million.

Ministers hope the Pfizer vaccine, of which Britain has ordered 40 million doses, will get the green light from safety watchdogs and will start being given to the over-70s and the clinically obese by December 7. However, the logistics of distributing the Pfizer drug, which has to be kept at minus 70C, is “daunting”.

The Oxford University vaccine being made by AstraZeneca has also hit bumps, with claims that the trials were poorly structured. But Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, told No 10 officials last week that it is still on track.

Key people, including NHS workers, teachers and police officers, will get it first although it is understood that the government has the capability to deliver only one million doses a week. No 10 says that will be scaled up.

Military chiefs are preparing for a flood of requests from councils for help with mass testing and vaccine distribution. They will open a “clearing house” team in the headquarters of the army’s 14,000-strong Covid Support Force to process the requests. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, told MPs last week that he could not replicate the Liverpool testing regime nationwide because“I don’t have that many people”.

Normal life might be around the corner, but the liberation force will not be the artillery or the cavalry. Johnson had better hope that whoever it is can score a late winner in the second half.