Six urgent items in Boris Johnson’s inbox as he returns | Politics

1. Leaving lockdown?

Pressure has been mounting from backbench Conservative MPs – and some cabinet ministers – for elements of the stringent distancing rules imposed on 23 March to be lifted.

Whitehall has been working on options – “doing the homework”, as Johnson’s deputy, Dominic Raab, put it on Sunday – but ministers have been reluctant to make any decisions without the prime minister.

The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, is determined that the transmission rate of the virus – the R0, as it is known – be suppressed well below 1 before the lockdown is eased. He is also racing to get a track-and-trace system up and running to help control the virus when restrictions are eased.

Meanwhile, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who unlike Hancock was present at a three-hour meeting in Chequers on Friday, is known to be keen to allow some businesses to reopen, given the catastrophic impact of a total shutdown on the economy.

There are also growing anxieties over the impact of an extended lockdown on mental and physical health, domestic abuse and the welfare of vulnerable children.

Johnson will have to make the ultimate decision about how to balance these and other concerns, with a formal review of the measures due by 7 May.

2. Test, test, test

Matt Hancock’s self-imposed deadline of completing 100,000 tests a day by the end of April expires this week.

Capacity has ramped up significantly in recent days, with all key workers now able to apply for a test – but self-administered testing kits have been running out within minutes on the government’s website, and workers have complained that they cannot book a test slot anywhere locally.

The government announced at the weekend that the army will now be involved in setting up mobile testing units.

Hancock has insisted his goal remains achievable – but it looks a stretch, and some colleagues feel it was always a hostage to fortune.

Johnson will have to choose whether to maintain No 10’s staunch backing of Hancock, or to distance himself from the pledge (though the prime minister himself suggested 250,000 tests a day would be achievable).

He will also have to decide how much of the government’s effort should be focused on the tracking-and-testing approach Hancock now regards as crucial.

3. Deciding who makes decisions, and how

Johnson will have to decide whether the decision-making structure in place through the peak of the crisis remains the right one for managing its next phase.

In his absence, key decisions have been made by a “quad” of ministers: Sunak, Hancock, Raab and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, each of whom chair one of the four powerful Covid-19 committees that have been managing the government’s day-to-day response.

At key turning points, decisions have also been rubber-stamped by the Cobra emergency committee, which includes representatives of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, as well as ministers and experts.

In turn, Cobra receives advice from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage). The government has repeatedly insisted its approach has been “led by the science”, but the independence of Sage has been thrown into doubt by the revelation that Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been attending its meetings, to the disquiet of some members.

The prime minister will have to decide whether Cummings should continue to attend and more broadly, which stakeholders should be included in decision-making from now on.

Some Tory MPs would like to see the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, bound in to deliberations about lifting lockdown, for example – and as parts of the economy reopen, the TUC have called for the formation of a national council for reconstruction and recovery, including unions and employers as well as government.

4. Addressing his own handling of the crisis

Keir Starmer confronted Raab at his first prime minister’s questions as Labour leader in a largely empty House of Commons chamber last Wednesday.

This week, it will be Johnson who has to face an interrogation, without the usual supportive roar from Tory backbenchers. It comes amid mounting questions about whether the prime minister was slow to react to the crisis at the start of the year: including whether he was right to allow Hancock to lead five early Cobra meetings on the virus..

A series of early decisions have been challenged, including halting the tracing of cases, allowing mass events such as the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead, and failing to act quickly enough to secure supplies of PPE.

Starmer made clear in a letter to the prime minister this weekend he will try to make some of this criticism stick – and will continue to press for more details on the government’s planned exit strategy.

“I fear we are falling behind the rest of the world,” the Labour leader wrote, urging Johnson to promise that no one will have to travel more than 20 minutes to have themselves tested for the virus.

5. The Brexit impasse

The latest round of the (physically distanced) Brexit talks ended on Friday, with both sides blaming the other for the lack of progress.

The government is accusing the EU of treating the UK more harshly than other counterparts in recent trade deals, while the EU fears ministers are backsliding on aspects of the Brexit deal struck last October.

Boris Johnson is expected to ask the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and EU leaders to intervene in the negotiations in the hope of breaking the deadlock.

The government must decide in June whether to seek an extension to the status quo transition period, something ministers have repeatedly insisted they are determined not to do.

Only two more rounds of videoconference negotiations are currently scheduled, but Johnson may hope that his personal involvement could help, as it did last autumn.

Gove is likely to reveal more about the government’s thinking when he appears before the House of Commons EU future relationship committee on Monday.

6. The Priti Patel bullying inquiry

The Whitehall ethics adviser Alex Allan has reportedly completed his investigation into events surrounding the resignation of the former Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam, who accused Priti Patel of bullying – but it was set aside in the prime minister’s absence.

Rutnam resigned on 29 February, claiming he had been “the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” .

He has already announced that he is taking legal action against Patel under whistleblowing laws, with the case expected to focus on her treatment of civil servants.

The prime minister tasked Allan with examining Patel’s alleged conduct, and whether it contravened the ministerial code. Johnson has previously backed Patel, saying he is “sticking by her”, but that could change if Allan finds she has broken the rules.

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