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Monday, Sep 28, 2020
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The government’s new concern: winter is coming

The government’s new concern: winter is coming

It is remarkable to think that just 15 days ago, Boris Johnson was setting out a plan to end all social distancing by November. But, as I say in The Times this morning, the mood in government has become much more pessimistic in the last week or so.
What most worries ministers, though, is what the uptick in Covid cases now means for the winter. August should be the most straightforward month for dealing with this virus. People are happy to socialise outdoors, the NHS isn’t under pressure from flu and there aren’t hundreds of thousands of people with a cough and a fever as there will be come November.

The fact restrictions are being re-imposed now raises questions about the reopening of schools in September. The Prime Minister is adamant that will happen ahead but there are beginning to be murmurings that children might have to go back on a part-time rota system.

There has long been worry about another wave of the virus coinciding with the winter flu season. But the alarm in government is that flu and Covid is just the half of it. This winter the government could be dealing with flu, Covid, flooding - remember, the promised extra flood defences have not yet been built - mass unemployment and all the issues arising from the end of the Brexit transition period.

So, what should Boris Johnson do? Well, one step he should take is to appoint a minister for winter. They would make sure departments are doing what is needed, prevent the turf wars that flared up back in March, and ensure that information flows around the system. The ideal person for this role would be Theo Agnew, a junior minister at both the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. He is one of Whitehall’s doers.

He knows his way round Downing Street, he was made a non-executive director at the Department for Education when Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove were there, and as a peer he won’t be seen as a threat by other ministers. The knowledge that he had No 10’s backing would be enough to give him sufficient authority to knock heads together.

The public have, so far, shown a mature understanding that mistakes were bound to be made in dealing with a new virus. But they’ll be far less forgiving of errors now that the government can see the problems that are coming down the track.

This winter the government could be dealing with flu, Covid, flooding, mass unemployment and all the issues arising from the end of the Brexit transition period.
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