Cabinet Office minister — real title, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster — Michael Gove offered London restaurants a fresh breakfast of uncertainty this morning, telling Sky News that he expected some form of national lockdown, and by extension restaurant closures, to be in place in England until March. This follows the Prime Minister’s oblique suggestion last night that lockdown would be in place until at least the February half-term, which is Monday 15 to Friday 19 February.
As subsequently reported by the Guardian, Gove delivered the bad news Johnson was once again apparently unwilling to own himself. “We can’t predict with certainty that we’ll be able to lift restrictions the week commencing [February, half term],” he said. “What we will be doing is everything we can to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated so that we can begin progressively to lift restrictions.” The minister added, “I think it’s right to say that, as we enter March, we should be able to lift some of these restrictions — but not necessarily all.”
Shortly after, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a new £4.6 billion fund to support hospitality and retail through this extended period of closure. And just like this is not the first time Sunak has ridden to the rescue with a first aid kit full of sticking plasters, this is not the first time Gove has been parachuted in at the crack of dawn to drop a sobering worst-case scenario. He did it last April when bleakly predicting that pubs would not likely reopen before the winter. Then, he was wrong; this time, it looks like he will be right — that restaurants won’t be reopening their dining rooms until March at the earliest.
“We want to make sure we make a balanced judgment about which restrictions can be relaxed at what time,” Gove said then in an attempt to manage expectations.
The problem for this government is that managing expectations is increasingly looking like a lost cause when its judgments have repeatedly proven not to be “balanced” but always determined by a reactive instinct. Depending on the number of restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes able to make it through to spring, the history books may yet remember Operation Have Your Cake and Eat It as a failed strategy.