When the government brought in three tiers of coronavirus restrictions in England two weeks ago, ministers argued that it would simplify a system they admitted had become too complex.
Yet again, things have not gone according to plan. There have been different decisions on which businesses are allowed to remain open in some of the areas in the “very high” tier 3 category.
Then Boris Johnson became embroiled in a messy and counterproductive war of words with Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, failing to reach agreement on financial support when they were £5m apart - small change for a government that has thrown more than £200bn at the crisis.
Meanwhile, the gulf between England and the rest of the divided kingdom has widened, with temporary lockdowns imposed in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland’s central belt.
Now the picture might become even more complicated. More areas, such as Warrington, and potentially parts of Nottinghamshire, are heading for tier 3. And Whitehall officials are studying the addition of a tier 3-plus level in the hotspots with the highest infection rates and hospital admissions, which the media would inevitably call tier 4 even if the government didn’t. Curbs could include the closure of restaurants and non-essential retail.
Watch: How England's three-tier local lockdown system works
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was careful not to rule out the move in a round of interviews today. He told BBC Breakfast: “We've always said all along that we take nothing off the table.” Tier 4 is seen as a possible plan B if the current regime does not turn the tide of the second wave.
Ministers hope it will not be necessary, pointing to figures suggesting that the increase in infection rate might have slowed. But their scientific advisers are not yet convinced.
A fourth tier would be a hard sell for Johnson. It might look to the public like another sign his constantly-changing approach was still not working, at a time when the “fatigue factor” is reducing people’s willingness to stick to the rules. It might appear that England was again following Scotland’s lead because Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, has announced a five-tier system running from zero to four.
If ministers do opt for a tier 4, they will be anxious to avoid another damaging round of negotiations with local leaders on financial support. While ministers wanted local “buy-in,” Tory MPs are bemused why a universal funding formula was not announced at the outset.
Many Tory MPs would take a lot of persuading to vote for a tier 4. Indeed, they are plotting how to roll back the existing restrictions. Ominously for Johnson, about 90 Tory backbenchers plan to form a Coronavirus Research Group if the government does not change course. The clue is in the name: it would be modelled on the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteers who made Theresa May’s life hell as prime minister.
Steve Baker, a former ERG chair, is co-ordinating the possible new group and making bellicose noises. He does “not want to return to leading a party within a party in pursuit of a different policy” but makes it very clear he will do so if necessary. If the government does not adopt “a new strategy,” he warns, “the alternative is increasingly grumpy and restive MPs as their voters pay the price of lockdown.”.
Although his scientific advisers and Hancock are pulling him in another direction, Johnson cannot ignore his rebellious “economy first” MPs. Some 42 Tories voted against restrictions this month; the number could grow and further Commons votes loom on renewing tier 3 curbs after 28 days.
Another headache for Johnson is that the rebel backbenchers enjoy support at the top of the government. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, wants the government to give more weight to and the public more information about the economic impact of restrictions.
Sunak blocked a two-week national circuit-breaker or firebreak when it was proposed by the Scientific Group for Emergencies (Sage) last month. Johnson is unlikely to go down this route now it has been endorsed by Keir Stamer, or want to rely on Labour’s support in Commons votes on restrictions, which would formalise the Tories’ split.
Some officials believe Johnson will need to adopt local or regional circuit-breakers in the worst-hit areas if he is to create room for the short temporary relaxation of the rules at Christmas he is desperate to announce.
The debate is a reminder that, whichever way Johnson turns, there are no easy options.
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