It’s magnificent, isn’t it, to find oneself ahead of a deadline? At current rates, the 32 million people in the top nine priority groups in the UK will be offered a first jab by 4 April, ahead of the 30 April deadline. The government is now also expecting all adults to be offered their first jab by 31 July, two months ahead of the previous target of September.
There are a few conclusions to draw from this: the most important is that everyone involved in vaccination, from the scientists developing it and the regulators pushing it through to the NHS staff delivering it, the volunteer stewards and the people getting vaccinated, lifting morale with their ear-to-ear beaming, have done something collective and tremendous. Yet in the spirit of chewing gum and walking at the same time, it’s possible to applaud the effort while also noting that the targets have been set deliberately low so they might be exceeded at every turn. It’s the one solitary piece of wisdom 2020 has gifted to the party of government: stop making stupid promises you can’t keep. Make underambition your watchword, then stand back and enjoy the fireworks of delight as every week is better than you predicted.
It is in this spirit that we should understand this week’s roadmap for England, such a masterwork of underpromising that it feels as though they’ve overdelivered already. Pre-briefed to almost every newspaper, we don’t even have the anxiety of surprise. Schools in England go back on 8 March: considering that the last concrete information on this was at the end of January, when ministers were “hoping” that schools “might” be back after Easter, this already looks like a government sailing past a personal best. Tennis and golf, low salience, high festivity events, may resume at the same time. Outdoor mixing, non-essential shopping and self-catering holidays may be allowed by Easter, indoor entertainment sometime in May, indoor household mixing by June. Boris Johnson reserves the right to “slam the brakes on”, says the Sun, if the R number, hospital admissions, vaccination numbers or mortality rates disappoint: given the glacial pace of these changes, “slamming” seems like a strong word.
The game plan Johnson has landed upon is that he’ll look at “data not dates”, thereby introducing an element of elasticity entirely at odds with the concept of a roadmap. Framed as deference to science, the announcement has it all: respectability, flexibility, unaccountability. Above all, it turns spring and summer into one long advent calendar; every week, we open some new door to a joy we didn’t dare to imagine, having been promised nothing but maybes. As tactics go, it’s like offering a toddler two choices, putting the one you want them to make second. Just in the sense that it’s weird how well it works.
Traces of the original prime minister remain – he solemnly undertakes, for instance, that this lockdown will be the last. Yet there has been a clear change of tack, away from boosterish certainty that characterised the government’s handling of the pandemic until now.
There are two factors at play here: one specific, one general. The departure of Dominic Cummings ushered in a new normal, away from sheer audacity – say whatever you like in the moment that might keep people happy, everyone’s an idiot anyway – towards a more old-school professional managerialism, such as you might recognise from an oncologist or a surveyor. The situation is grave, and everything will not be fine; yet these sequential steps will be taken, and within the variables of each one’s success, we can guess the range of the timescale. This tends more towards pleasant surprise than hideous disappointment.
In more general terms, the combination of the vaccine’s success and the shockingly steep climb of the second wave has sealed something in the public mood that was already palpable by the autumn: there is an abiding sense that, whatever mistakes have been made, whatever corruption uncovered, whatever short-sightedness and flakiness you could reasonably charge the government with, this is a dire situation that no mortal could have judged perfectly. None of us would wish the stewardship of this crisis on our worst enemy: that fact alone has created a mournful mood of fair play that the government has grasped with both hands, to make itself the victim of the disaster rather than its architect. Truthfully, it was always both.
So the government talks of not playing politics with Covid, of listening only to impartial science, but in fact its approach is deeply political: every triumph it claims for itself, every failure belongs to all of us. Privatise the wins, socialise the losses; it is not an unfamiliar strategy, although it is a bit bracing to see it adapted so seamlessly from one crisis to another.
In fact, there is a much more important roadmap to discuss than when we will once again see the inside of a gym: how do people’s livelihoods recover? How do decimated sectors rebuild? It is past the point of mattering whether pubs will open in April or May: what matters now is how businesses, and people, that have been brought to the brink of economic destruction can be nursed back to health. Johnson has chosen a stance of affable impotence; it looks like a smart move in the short term, yet it offers huge opportunity for the opposition that can generate a sense of agency.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist