Conservative campaigners are urging Boris Johnson to reopen much of England’s economy by early May, ahead of local elections in which the party is increasingly hopeful of benefiting from a “vaccine bounce”.
The UK prime minister will set out a road map for exiting the nationwide lockdown in the week commencing February 22, with the intention of reopening schools from March 8. Government insiders insisted it would be a “slow, phased” approach starting with schools.
One scenario, where schools return in March, non-essential shops reopen in April and pubs and restaurants reopen in May, was described as “the most optimistic timetable that could happen” by one Whitehall official, who cautioned that “nothing is set in stone yet, it all depends on the data”.
Tory campaigners are eager for as much of the economy to be open ahead of a major set of local government elections on May 6. Mayoralties in London and England are up for election, as well as the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and hundreds of local councils. Although the polls are scheduled to go ahead, council leaders have called for a delay because of the pandemic.
The party had been braced for significant losses, as voters may seek to vote on the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and pollster, has warned that May could turn into a “Covid election”.
But according to officials working on the local elections, recent internal focus groups have suggested voters are pleased with the vaccine roll out and are feeling more optimistic.
One of the party’s donors said, “we need to give people a feel good factor and that means pubs reopen. There’s increasing talk of a vaccine bounce and people will credit us if we get this right.”
An influential Tory up for election in May said, “I think spring and the vaccine role out is potentially important, which by definition will impact on tiers. That will give people confidence that things are moving in [the] right direction.”
But one Tory party official poured cold water on the idea of a “vaccine bounce”, saying: “We are eleven years into government and these will be a tough set of elections. With a new leader who isn't Jeremy Corbyn, Labour should be expecting to make significant gains at this point in the electoral cycle.”
Some Tory MPs are pushing for more detail on the reopening plans. Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, said “there are still many other questions to seek clarity on — such as what criteria ministers want to see before they decide to reopen schools.”
The government is expected to reopen schools in stages, starting with primary schools, followed by older year groups sitting exams and then the rest of secondary schools.
Meanwhile the Labour party reiterated calls to vaccinate teachers during the February half term. Angela Rayner, deputy leader, argued it was possible to vaccinate the around 1 million teaching staff across the country without pushing other vulnerable groups down the prioritisation list.
Following comments from Jonathan Van Tam, deputy chief medical officer, who said teachers did not experience a “markedly increased rate of infection or mortality”, Ms Rayner argued that teachers were at a greater risk from the virus. “All frontline key workers including teachers . . . are more at risk of infection and death. That is a fact".
Downing Street insisted on Thursday it will continue to follow the JCVI prioritisation list. “There will be teachers who do receive a vaccine as they fall into top 1 to 4 groups. The focus is to get the vaccine out to those at most risk of the virus,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said.