Just as an experiment, let’s take the Government at face value. They’re worried about the new Omicron variant, which is even more transmissible than Delta and somewhat more resistant to immunity from vaccination or previous infection. It’s already spreading rapidly in England, doubling every couple of days; the UK Health Security Agency estimates it could be the dominant variant in as little as 2-4 weeks.
A big new wave like this, if it passes through the population, will always hit a small minority of vulnerable people badly who will then need hospital care — and as we are constantly being reminded, a small percentage of a big number can still be a big number. To make matters worse, this wave looks like it might peak in the beginning of January which is the busiest week of the year in UK hospitals, and an annual pinch point at which (because of bad resourcing and planning) we have almost no spare NHS capacity. So they are worried, as ever, about terrifying footage of overflowing hospitals.
What would be the correct response to this concern?
The first thing to make clear is that if the underlying premise is correct — that Omicron spreads like wildfire and will lead to significantly more reinfections and breakthrough cases — it is going to be very hard to stop it. You’d have to go for a full-on nationwide lockdown to seriously attempt to slow it down — and even that may only delay the peak by a couple of weeks.
But there is no appetite for another full-on lockdown, especially as it would ruin Christmas again, and the Government is already unpopular. They simply don’t have the political strength to do it — and there are doubtless many people who wouldn’t obey it. Meanwhile, a small selection of minor rule-changes such as “Plan B” entails will not make much meaningful difference. Advising working from home but still going to parties, increasing the wearing of masks in shops but not in pubs and increasing use of vaccine passports for a variant that spreads easily among the vaccinated is not a serious policy response to Omicron. Might it push the peak of the wave out by a day or two? Who knows, but if we are going to be at a million cases before Christmas, it’s a meaningless difference.
So why do such a pointless thing? The answer, as always, is politics.
The first calculation is within parliament: No 10 figures they can afford to upset their own backbenchers and that Boris Johnson’s position is not genuinely vulnerable (despite media stories). In any case, Keir Starmer will blindly support any restrictions, so they will win any vote.
Within the wider electorate, they calculate that the voters who will be most upset by such a move are in the minority, and will either vote for them anyway or not vote at all. At this level, the restrictions are a minor inconvenience for most and will still command majority support.
Most important, they imagine a bad scenario in early January with hospitals really under pressure, and they don’t want to be vulnerable to the charge that they “did nothing”. It’s all too reminiscent of the charge of “too little too late” that caused them such grief last winter. This way, they can at least say that they took action.
But will they get away with it? This time, I don’t think so.
First, it will cause genuine harm to businesses, costing the economy billions and leaving a long tail of uncertainty and unease.
Second, the level of disobedience regarding the new regulations will increase, and further diminish the authority of the Government. The timing of the announcement will be deemed suspicious by a cynical public, coming so hard on the heels of the Christmas party scandal, and distrust will increase. The absurd inclusion of vaccine passports as a measure to combat a variant whose main threat is vaccine escape will result in the anti-vax and anti-lockdown minority growing, hardening and entrenching. They will be increasingly estranged from mainstream society.
Most gravely of all, it sets a precedent that will now take years to roll back. Last winter’s lockdown was justified in order to get us to the first vaccines; vaccines have now been offered to everyone. With this second winter intervention, the principle is being established that lockdowns or lockdowns-light — centralised diktats about the movements of every citizen — are the proper response to new variants or potential pressures on the health service. And we all know there will be new variants that escape vaccines better than Omicron in the future; and new viruses after that.
We had a chance, this winter, to show Europe and the world that the UK could achieve a better outcome by avoiding pointless and divisive vaccine passports and further lockdown-style measures. That chance was squandered yesterday, and this cynical, superficial Government will eventually pay the price.