Cynics might detect a degree of theatricality in Matt Hancock’s recent lachrymose behaviour, but the health secretary should be allowed a tear or two of relief that a Covid vaccine has arrived. The pictures of the first recipients, Margaret Keenan and William Shakespeare, were genuinely moving. Could this also be a political turning point?
Ministers, not least Mr Hancock, must hope so. Public approval for the way they have handled the crisis has steadily declined since the spring, taking a particular hit after May when the revelations about Dominic Cummings’s behaviour enraged many. It had a broader political effect too: the Conservative Party’s lead over Labour shrank by some 9 percentage points and confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic slumped. The “Dominic Cummings Effect” had a pronounced and lasting effect.
Since then a succession of lockdowns, tiering systems, the exams fiasco, testing setbacks, confused messaging, a gradually rising death toll and the second Covid wave has seen the government’s ratings fall still further. The latest polling, from King’s College London and Ipsos Mori suggests that two-thirds of people think the government failed to prepare properly for the second wave, and for the first time more than half the population distrust the government’s response to the pandemic, despite the high profile of liked and respected experts such as Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England. The public may have had some of its faith in experts restored during this crisis. A majority of the country thinks that the government’s performance has been a national humiliation. In Scotland, public attitudes towards Boris Johnson are especially harsh, and he has famously underperformed Nicola Sturgeon, even before he decried devolution as a “disaster”.
Fairly or not, the arrival of the vaccine may not be enough to restore the UK government’s fortunes. In the first place, if the track record is anything to go by, delivery of adequate supplies at the right time to the right people is far from assured. The vaccines taskforce did well to oversee the fast-tracking of approval, but any vaccine is only as good as the number of people taking it. Already ministers are reluctant to say when fresh deliveries will arrive beyond the 800,000 doses now available – enough for only 400,000 people. Brexit seems likely to at least complicate the supply of the Pfizer vaccine from Belgium. In any event, it is a huge logistical challenge.
Any delays in administering the vaccine will most likely be blamed on ministers, who are, after all, politically accountable. But if things go well and life returns to more normal patterns in the spring, it will probably be the scientists, medical staff and carers who will be given the round of applause. Gavin Williamson’s much-ridiculed claim that the vaccine arrived early in Britain because it was the best country in the world might actually reflect a degree of national pride – but that does not mean the voters consider that they have the best politicians in the world.
All that said, the Conservatives poll ratings, basically neck and neck with Labour, are not so shocking in the circumstances. A botched rollout of the vaccines and a chaotic Brexit followed by a recession could easily give Labour a larger and more consistent lead in the polls, signalling Tory losses in council, mayoral and, especially, Scottish parliamentary elections in the spring. No doubt there will be more rumours about a Tory leadership crisis. Still, it is perfectly possible for the Conservatives to switch leaders and gradually recover as they approach the next general election, some three to four years away. By then the Covid crisis “should” be over, and new problems will be more pressing; but will the voters forget about the pain, the misery and the incompetence they endured in 2020?