How Rishi Sunak battled scientists, Gove and Hancock in bid to see off circuit breaker lockdown
When he stood in front of the nation on Monday evening, Boris Johnson made clear his opposition to a new national lockdown plan, warning it would cause “immediate harm”, and adding: “We don’t want to go down that extreme route right now.” But, just 24 hours later, Mr Johnson’s commitment to that pledge was being put to the test with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer openly in favour of the ‘circuit breaker’ national lockdown, backed by the Prime Minister’s own scientific advisers. Mr Johnson will now come under pressure from the ‘doves’ in his Cabinet once again to subject the nation to stricter lockdown measures. For the ‘hawks’ in Mr Johnson’s Cabinet, it was a battle they thought they had already won. Cabinet ministers had been discussing for three weeks the guidance from the Sage group of scientific advisers which stated that what was needed was a national lockdown of several weeks to “put the epidemic back” by at least 28 days. Yet on Monday Mr Johnson rejected this advice and backed a three tier system to divide England in “medium”, “high” or “very high” risk areas, with an escalating degree of restrictions on social mixing. In doing, so he was heeding the advice of Cabinet hawks like Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, Alok Sharma, the Business secretary, and Oliver Dowden, the Culture secretary, who were desperate to keep as much of the economy open as possible. But, soon after finishing his address to the nation, minutes from Sage meetings were published, warning that a failure to go further could result in “a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”. A two-week national circuit break lockdown to halt the virus had been first proposed on September 17 by one of Sage’s subcommittees. The scientists and health experts appeared to be preparing the ground for tougher restrictions at a meeting of the Cabinet Office’s ‘Covid-19 Operation’ committee some two days later. This Covid-O committee runs the Government’s daily battle with coronavirus. Its official role is “to deliver the policy and operational response to Covid-19”, according to the Government’s website. Officially, it has a standing membership of three: its chairman Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Matt Hancock, the Health secretary (both seen as ‘doves’) and Mr Sunak, a solitary ‘hawk’.