Not a lot, suggests the latest data
This Christmas provided yet another opportunity for the devolved administrations to set themselves apart from Westminster in their response to Covid-19.
Boris Johnson, constrained perhaps by last month’s unhelpful revelations about the underground party culture apparently gripping Downing Street, elected to let both Christmas and New Year’s Eve proceed as normal.
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Both Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon, by contrast, decided to impose restrictions. Cue press stories about Welsh and Scottish revellers crossing the border, their nights saved by our precious Union.
With those events now behind us, it seems extremely unlikely that England will see a January lockdown. Even Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary has started to talk about “learning to live well with the virus”.
Scottish and Welsh voters, by contrast, will be forgiven for wondering what they missed the party for. According to the Scottish press, just a single Omicron patient north of the border needed intensive care in the last five weeks.
A closer look at the data doesn’t suggest the First Ministers’ interventions have made much difference. Go to the charts for cases in England, Scotland, and Wales, and set the time span to the last month.
What do we see? In each country, the trend line showing the seven-day average is pretty much the same shape, trending gently upwards.
This shouldn’t surprise us; according to this document from SAGE, the only intervention that has anything more than a ‘moderate’ impact on infections is a full lockdown. The impact on the R rate of closing restaurants, clubs and so on is small.
In the same document they warn of potentially “high indirect impacts” from such interventions in the form of loss of income for the hospitality sector. How many Welsh and Scottish businesses in the sector saw their anticipated end-of-year bump spent in England instead?
If we look at ‘patients in hospital’, England’s seven-day average starts to trend upwards around December 25; in Scotland and Wales there is a much less pronounced uptick.
But the goal of restrictions was not to hold admissions down per se — that simply delays the wave, as it has overseas — but to prevent the Health Service getting overwhelmed. And the Government seems upbeat that even in London, the ‘epicentre’ of the epidemic in England, we may be past the worst: admissions are dropping, and the number of intensive care beds needed is unchanged.
So far, then, the Government seems to have been vindicated in its decision not to impose restrictions. The English hospitality sector received a welcome boost; people got to enjoy the holidays with their friends and family; the NHS has not fallen over.
Will Sturgeon and Drakeford take the lesson? The devocrat reflex is too often to be different for the sake of being different.
But if their different attitudes towards Covid-19 persist into 2022, it could create political tensions. As I noted before, it’s only cash from HM Treasury that makes even partial shutdowns economically viable. If England is managing without restrictions, how long will Rishi Sunak be prepared to keep signing those cheques?