COVID-19: Virus response has burnt through PM’s political capital – but can he pull it back?

As Conor Burns’s Bournemouth West constituency was put into Tier 2 on Thursday, the MP took to Twitter to ask a question from a constituent that he was struggling to answer.

It read: “How can you end a four-week lockdown in a worse place in terms of restrictions than before?”

It is a question that millions of people may be asking themselves as the new system announced on Thursday put all but 700,000 people across England in the two tougher tiers.

A total of 28 million of us went into lockdown living under the lowest levels of restrictions, but will come out in Tiers 2 or 3. Hardly a return to freedom.

The prime minister was apologetic but he also said the new measures were necessary as he floated the prospect of a third national lockdown if “we ease off now”.

It’s hardly a surprise that the tiers are tougher. Back in November, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) concluded that Tier 1 measures alone were “not enough to prevent the epidemic from growing rapidly”.

As for Tier 2, “under the right circumstances in some cases, Tier 2 could theoretically be enough to reduce R to below 1, however this has not been observed”.

The fact we went into lockdown was proof the old tier system hadn’t worked and so it is logical that as we come out of national measures what we return to is a tougher system.

Add in the five days of relaxation at Christmas, annual NHS winter crisis and the colder weather and this tier system looks likely to run well into the new year.

The prime minister insisted on Wednesday “your tier is not your destiny” but it’s hard to imagine in the coming few weeks how areas will be moved down the tier system.

Ask an official, if they believe we might see some easing in the new year, you’ll get a simple answer: “That depends.”

But if the public is miserable about the prospect of more restrictions for a few more months, many in the Conservative party are furious, believing the prime minister has been captured by scientific “group think” by his advisers on SAGE: The rebellion is growing fast.

Steve Baker, deputy chair of the COVID Recovery Group, described the government’s actions as “authoritarianism at work” and said it was “truly appalling”.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, told me the number of MPs troubled by the proposed measures is approaching 100.

“There is deep genuine concern amongst my colleagues about where we are heading and what the plan is,” he said.

“Tightening this up, then releasing at Christmas, then tightening up again possibly going into a lockdown. These are a series of lurches which don’t allow people to understand where we’re going.”

For Mr Duncan Smith and many of his colleagues, the devastation to the economy is an important part of the equation that is being overlooked.

He said: “It does seem to me, endlessly, that the scientists keep winning out on saying the only thing that matters is COVID and I don’t think that’s the case.”

But the prime minister has decided on his course, and in the coming few days the government will publish a analysis on the impact of the interventions on controlling COVID as well as the non-COVID health, economic and societal impact in order to try to win over its own MPs before the vote on Tuesday.

It could well prove a futile act with a core of rebels preparing to vote against the measures.

The prime minister, with a majority of 80, faces the very real prospect of having to rely on Labour votes to push through his flagship pandemic policy.

It’s a reflection of the extent to which his government’s handling of the health crisis has burnt through Mr Johnson’s political capital.

And once you’ve lost it, it’s very hard to pull it back.

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