‘Jitters’ in Downing Street as Boris Johnson finalises 19 July plans

Change in rhetoric about Freedom Day from ministers as Covid cases soar

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Ministers are adopting a more wary tone about next Monday’s so-called Freedom Day amid reports of “jitters” within the government.

Boris Johnson issued a warning ahead of this afternoon’s press conference, where he is expected to confirm his plan to lift the vast majority of social distancing legal restrictions in England on 19 July.

“Caution is absolutely vital,” said the prime minister in a statement released last night in what the Daily Mirror has called “a blizzard of mixed messages”.

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‘Trepidation’ in Downing Street

On Saturday, The Guardian reported “government jitters about the risks of the big-bang approach” next Monday, when social gathering limits are due to be lifted and all remaining businesses such as nightclubs can reopen.

Two Whitehall sources told the newspaper that ministers had been “spooked” by internal polling, which suggested the public thought the government was moving too quickly on scrapping restrictions. However, these accounts were denied by No 10, said the Guardian.

Government sources conceded that Johnson’s warnings not to be “demob happy” at last Monday’s press conference had “got slightly lost”, said the paper.

“In private,” said The Times, “Downing Street aides, government scientific advisers and Tory MPs feel trepidation.”

New ‘wary tone’

Johnson’s new “wary tone” last night reflected “fears about soaring coronavirus cases, which ministers have said could reach 100,000 a day within weeks” and the “growing worries in Whitehall” about next Monday, says The Telegraph.

“We are tantalisingly close to the final milestone in our road map out of lockdown, but the plan to restore our freedoms must come with a warning,” Johnson said in the statement.

“While the phenomenal vaccine rollout has offered every adult some protection against the virus, and the crucial link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths is weakened, the global pandemic is not over yet.”

The Mirror notes that last week, during Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson was using much stronger language about the link, claiming it had been “severed”.

It is also “noticeable that the prime minister has stopped saying that freedoms are ‘irreversible’”, says The Times. Instead, he has taken to saying he will “do everything possible to avoid reimposing restrictions”.

‘Watering down’ Freedom Day

Meanwhile, the government has “backtracked on the use of masks” once restrictions are lifted next week, says the Financial Times.

Johnson had previously said wearing face coverings would be a “personal choice”, but Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi yesterday told The Andrew Marr Show that there would be an “expectation” for people to wear masks “indoors, in crowded places, and on public transport”.

Tory MPs said Zahawi’s “rhetoric represented a notable toughening in the Government’s line”, while the party’s former leader Iain Duncan Smith said it risked “watering things down” and sparking confusion, says the Telegraph.

But Zahawi’s caution “paled in comparison with the tone struck by Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins”, says Isabel Hardman in The Spectator, who agrees the government is having a “wobble” over Freedom Day.

Speaking to Times Radio yesterday, Hopkins urged people to continue working from home where possible over the next four to six weeks, despite the guidance to do so being lifted next Monday.

“I don’t think anyone could ringingly endorse the steps we are doing,” said Hopkins, referring to the general 19 July reopening, but admitted it was a “fine balancing act” and that no matter when the restrictions were lifted it would be “human behaviour” driving any increase in cases.

“It is not a time to be over-enthusiastic about social contact,” she concluded.

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