by Freddie Sayers
Tuesday, 21
December 2021
Explainer
07:30

What the non-decision on lockdown means

The political atmosphere has fundamentally shifted
by Freddie Sayers

Waves of surprise and relief flash across the internet. Family WhatsApp groups light up. Long-laid plans are kept, tentatively, in the diary. The Government says it will not – yet — make normal life for Britons illegal for a second winter in a row. The Prime Minister’s post-cabinet message yesterday didn’t exactly sound reassuring, with “nothing ruled out” and “the possibility of taking further action”, but still, it’s a stay of execution for which millions of people will feel grimly thankful.

This non-decision decision may not have been exactly good news — and there may well be new restrictions in the coming weeks — but it was significant in that it marked a change in the political atmosphere. The unopposed glide towards lockdowns at times of rising Covid cases has finally been interrupted.

It can be hard to unpick the Kremlinology of exactly where Covid decisions are made in Boris Johnson’s notoriously loose administration — there is a Covid group inside Number Ten, there is Sajid Javid’s team, and there are the advisory bureaucrats headed by Vallance and Whitty. This duo remain the most “bearish” but the SpAds closest to Boris used to be very cautious and pro-lockdown; since the vaccine programme and the successful opening up back in July, they are noticeably more sanguine.

The old “quartet” of Covid decision makers (Johnson, Sunak, Gove, Hancock) that was concocted to counterbalance the more liberal instincts of Johnson and Sunak with the two biggest lockdowners in the cabinet, is no more. Gove is now essentially out of Covid decision-making, and we all know what happened to Hancock. In this new world the more freedom-inclined instincts of Rishi Sunak hold more sway.

Enter Sajid Javid, who was relatively lockdown-sceptical during his time outside cabinet and relished being the anti-Hancock when he went ahead with opening up in July. Faced with his first scare in the form of Omicron he has had a major wobble: he has gone from being anti-restrictions on principle to being in the minority of cabinet voices in favour of some form of lockdown now. But even despite this U-turn he is conscious of the downsides of restrictions in a way his predecessor was not. His social media picture last night showing how he was consulting with new experts (including Francois Balloux) was a way of signalling how he is not simply swallowing the SAGE line without questioning.

The cabinet until now has been largely kept out of Covid decisions but because of the Prime Minister’s new political weakness seems to have been functional and assertive yesterday. It allows Gove back in the discussion, but gives a forum for the committed cabinet sceptics to be heard — by reports, only four cabinet ministers yesterday were persuaded by the case for immediate restrictions.

Each of these centres of Government may think they are the true decision-making body when it comes to Covid measures — that is the ambiguous atmosphere that Boris Johnson inevitably creates — but the mood in each of them is different to last winter.

Meanwhile, the scale of the backbench rebellion — with over 100 MPs rejecting Plan B last week — looms large in Government minds. Whatever you think of his politics, Steve Baker must be credited as one of the most effective backbench rebel leaders in recent Conservative history; his group is as influential now as it was at the height of the Brexit standoff. Crucially, the rebel 100 under-estimates the true extent of disquiet: consider Danny Kruger, who remains on the Government payroll as a PPS, and did not join the rebels over Plan B, but wrote a searing indictment of the direction of travel as his letter of “support”. He then co-authored an assertive op-ed about the future of the party with increasingly visible rebel Miriam Cates later the same week. The sense that lockdowns cannot continue as a mode of running the country goes far beyond the libertarian rebels and deep into the Tory Government.

At the same time the public opinion polls, which for most of the past two years have been stuck in Beijingesque unanimity in support of lockdowns and the Government, have moved quickly and dramatically. Polling this past weekend showed that just 19% of people would support a Christmas lockdown — a figure unthinkable at previous moments in this story. People have taken their vaccines, they are taking their boosters and as far as they’re concerned that’s that. With the Conservatives behind in the polls and fresh from the disaster of Shropshire North, the idea of new lockdowns is even less appetising.

So while it has not flipped completely, the political atmosphere has decisively shifted, and with it, the mood inside Government: scepticism about SAGE modelling, independent research into data about Omicron coming out of South Africa and Denmark and an awareness of the dangerous precedent that would be set by returning into lockdown for a second winter is common around the cabinet table just as it is on the backbenches.

The coming weeks will be testing. As the Omicron wave fans out across the country, all it will take is one sign of “the NHS being overwhelmed” to challenge this newfound assertiveness to breaking point. It could take the form of a TV crew’s report from inside a single hospital looking chaotic, with images of trolleys lining the corridors, which goes viral on social media; it could be a single hospital diverting A&E patients, or an NHS Trust formally declaring an emergency. Any one of these, even if they are short of a genuine national NHS crisis, would mean huge pressure from political opponents to snap back to lockdown.

But the politics are different now to previous moments in this pandemic; there’s a genuine debate inside Government and depending on what happens in the coming days there’s just about a chance — a flicker of hope — that restraint could yet win the day.

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Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago

Trying to get around Unherd’s ludicrous moderation package:
Boris must discover his ‘two round things’.

Andrew D
Andrew D
6 months ago

I tried to help but was moderated!
BBC is still ramping up the pressure, I’m sure the politicians will cave very soon after Christmas, if not before. The main thing is for everybody to treat any restrictions in exactly the same way as those who devised them have been treating them.

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrew D
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
6 months ago

He should ask Carrie where she hid them.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
6 months ago

Maybe Miriam Cates can lend him some.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
6 months ago

Spheroids – unless they’ve been listed.

jim peden
jim peden
6 months ago

I guess you mean ol’blocks (anag.) (I just thought I’d try this to see if it evades the robo-censor.)

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago
Reply to  jim peden

Will remember it for next time!

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
6 months ago

All along it seems to me as if the Government has been subject to a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” attitude. As a result they feel tremendous pressure to do something, anything, despite the evidence. At the very beginning of the pandemic, the initial “15 days” to slow the curve promulgated by Fauci and Birx in the US was fine and not totally off the wall. After all, nobody really knew what was what, the picture in Italy looked very grim, and there is nothing wrong with taking a step back to examine the situation. The problem is that 15 days to slow the curves ending up being a year of lockdown with more or less stringent enforcement depending upon the state one lived in. The same story, of course, was true of the UK.
But we’re no longer at the beginning of the pandemic. We’re not even at the second wave, but at the 4th or 5th. We are now in a position to really examine what the effect of the introduction of the various mitigation efforts (whether lockdowns, masks or even vaccines) actually had on the time course of each wave. As far as I can tell, looking at the data in various countries with different timings for these measures relative to the infection wave, none of these measures had any effect whatsoever. This is unfortunate, but appears to be true. It’s especially unfortunate for the vaccines which appeared to have so much early promise (with trial results suggesting up to 95% protection for the mRNA vaccines), but now appear to be clearly failing miserably (including boosters).
My personal take is that it takes an individual with considerable courage to stand up and do basically nothing, as was done in Sweden. Let the population adapt by taking appropriate measures and let the government facilitate those measures. e.g. if people can work from home and want to, facilitate that. Many are in a position where they can; of course some cannot (e.g. doctors in hospitals can’t do that much remotely). Let restaurants have outdoor seating, even expanding into the roads if necessary, with outdoor heating when required. Help install high capacity HEPA air purifiers in indoor public spaces (including restaurants, bars, hospitals, nursing homes, etc…). And so on. And of course, let’s do what we can to protect those at most risk, in particular the elderly by improving the physical space in terms of air circulation and ventilation, of nursing homes and hospitals.
As for Omicron, the data from both South Africa and Denmark would indicate that the new variant is a lot less lethal. Even in the UK, I believe there have been no deaths to date from omicron (as opposed to a single death of somebody with omicron as an incidental finding). Surely that’s a good thing. Isn’t that how pandemics end. Isn’t that exactly what happened with the Spanish flu in 1919. If omicron is a lot less lethal, the next variant to come along is likely to be reduced to the level of a common cold. So surely now is not the time to hit the panic buttons. Indeed, I would argue that while panic on the part of government and public health officials was not an unreasonable reaction, albeit a flawed one, in March 2020, it is a completely unreasonable one now, and expecting different results from the same old approaches borders on insanity.
And lastly Heather MacDonald has a really great article in the Spectator on the manufacture of fear entitled “Inside the Omicron Fear Factory”. Well worth reading: https://spectatorworld.com/topic/inside-omicron-variant-fear-factory-new-york-covid/

Last edited 6 months ago by Johann Strauss
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

No need for more lockdowns, they met their goal of destroying the global economy – now they just have to wait for the dead man waking to keel over, the mass breakdown of the production/supply/distribution, the hyper inflation, the mass unemployment, and then, the point of it all, the Martial Law, and they officially declaring themselves ‘Dictator’.

Although Boris will make a poor figure of a dictator, maybe he is to be the puppet – he does make a good puppet figure.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
6 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Echos of my sentiments. The politicians futility to “do something” is for all to see. The public is slowly appreciating that government control of nature is limited. Once containment failed, the virus became destined to be endemic. The best we can do is try to treat the people affected with suitable measures that so far, have eluded common medical practice. Why do we not have widely accepted, inexpensive treatment protocols? Can big Pharma really be that all powerful?

Steve Hoffman
Steve Hoffman
6 months ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

Much as I hate appearing to be a conspiracy theorist, I am beginning to think that big pharma is very powerful. Otherwise why is the medical establishment so silent about preventive measures such as large-dosage vitamin D? Big pharma won’t fund trials of course because there’s no profit in Vit D but giving it away and promoting it could make a significance in Covid-19 infections and transmission at a very small cost.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Hoffman

Yes indeed. Part of it is big Pharma. And the other part is the over-reliance and attachment of western medicine, especially in the US and UK, on the latest and greatest expensive high tech. (Sort of analogous to the US military which is so wedded to high tech that it was defeated by a bunch of goat herders with AK47s and certainly no aerial support). As a result simple old remedies that should be completely non-controversial, like vit D, are simply either ignored or claimed to actually be dangerous. Had Trump advocated for the use of chicken noodle soup (which is supposed to be quite helpful when stricken with a cold or flu), the medical establishment and public health authorities would no doubt have exclaimed how dangerous a cup of chicken noodle soup was, and would have gone about banning the sale of both chicken and noodles!

Andrea X
Andrea X
6 months ago

Par. 6, there is a “which” too many in the opening sentence.

I am glad that Freddie is cautiously optimistic. I am not sure how much of his optimism I share, though. To me the damage is done and the precedent is set, it is just a matter of how much damage.
Also, why are you singling out Miriam’s outspokenness?
(And BTW, I have to contend with lovely Nicola, so I am in even MORE trouble).

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrea X
Andrea X
Andrea X
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I see they do read the comments as that sentence has been corrected.
(I admit, my comment was a but of a test to check for that 😀 )
Still, Unherd could loan their proofreader to the Spectator as they have been in need of one for… ever.

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrea X
Vasiliki Farmaki
Vasiliki Farmaki
6 months ago

Does it really matter if the conservatives lost North Shropshire? Everyone is exactly the same, aren’t they? … the-so-called-pandemic, is the proof: one after the other, they all agree to more restrictions. The ongoing ‘blame game’ is the tool so as to pull people into unvoiced consent, instead of openly admitting they loathe that we are living in and we are the Free world.
 
I watched a video with Sayers and Paul Kingsworth, and they brought up a creepy question about Freedom and Kingsworth took the opportunity, given from Sayers, aiming to deviate the audience to start doubting about ourselves such as: who we are, what is the meaning of life.. etc..… at a time we need to be certain and solid about our values and ideals. And Yes We do have a very long History of Freedom. What is the point of such questioning unless they both support tyranny, albeit undercover?
Once things start to get harder for malicious plans that do not progress as it was planned, then.. surprise.. surprise.. those have been abusing all of us, for so long.. they start asking for conversation about this and that..! However, we have neither been asked in the first instance nor at any point after.. Boris democratic fever, and others, for ‘conversation’ at this point is only because they would like to push us further into the quicksand of totalitarianism. 

Last edited 6 months ago by Vasiliki Farmaki
William Cameron
William Cameron
6 months ago

Does Carrie Antoinette allow Boris to attend her cabinet meetings ?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago

probably makes him wear a Jester costume if she does.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago

Boris must find his ‘two round things’.

Last edited 6 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
David Simpson
David Simpson
6 months ago

Last time I looked, they’re more oval than round, but good plan, all the same

Malcolm C
Malcolm C
6 months ago

Boris has: 1. been shaken by the backbench rebellion (remember others abstained rather than voted against, but essentially could not support further restrictions) and; 2. he is looking at the data. The data shows that infections are rising (but testing has doubled to 1.5m a day) but the positivity rate remains similar at around 5%, hospital admissions and numbers in hospitals are relatively flat, there’s only around 8-900 people on mechanical ventilation, and the case fatality rate is just 0.23% and seems to be falling.

Andrzej Wasniewski
Andrzej Wasniewski
6 months ago

The massive transfer or property to the Davos syndicate clients has already happened. Tens of if not hundreds millions of people lost their businesses, property and now depend on government handouts.
People cannot travel freely and are the subject of constant control and surveillance.
Lockdowns almost accomplished what were designed to do.
And anyone who really followed and supported governments restrictions for the last 18 months is already dead internally. Their only way of feeling alive is to be scared of dying. Nothing to fear folks, you have been dead for some time.
Everything is going according to the plan.

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrzej Wasniewski
Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
6 months ago

It is now the blind leading the blind. Mortality in the last month of those testing positive is a fifth of the previous rates for those in their sixties and seventies and two fifths for older people. Actual deaths are down much more because infections have been in school children and their parents. I suspect vulnerable people have been more cautious. Boris would do better to say get tested before seeing granny and ensuring the tests available. Then at least he could blame the children and grandchildren if granny dies.

Last edited 6 months ago by Jon Hawksley
Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
6 months ago

Hope you are right…

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

Yes, interesting changes. I noticed even more that at ‘Any Questions’ neither Labour nor Lib Dem dared say what to me seems obvious – that we should have introduced plan B, if not plan C several weeks ago, instead of again going for ‘too little, too late’, as has been the Boris’ habit. The mood is indeed shifting. As for myself I have rather expensively abandoned our holiday plans and associated air tickets. I think it is unlikely that I will come to regret it.

Andrea X
Andrea X
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Unless you got a full refund, why give up on the holiday, for fear of being stuck overseas?
At least I didn’t make ANY plan as I decided months ago it wasn’t worth either the stress or the expense.

Philip L
Philip L
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

If you’re one of those folks who enjoys camping out in the space betwween your mattress and floor then lockdowns are “obvious” but to the rest of us they are not (and never were).
The article describes “the mood” as having swung against restrictions; even the dreaded polls are coming back conclusive on this. A trip to the cinema with the kids last w/end revealed the entire complex to be rammed, many people having realised that staring at bedsprings really isn’t any way to live.

Last edited 6 months ago by Philip L
Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Sometimes I wonder if you are just Tom Chivers with a fake account.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Is Plan ‘C’ the one Australia, Canada, and Austria are using? You know, Concentration Camps for the covid suspects/deniers?

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I invoke Godwins law. If there is something you want to know, could you ask without the concentration camps?

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Isn’t Galeti Tavas effectively quite correct in relation to the use of the term “concentration camps” when it comes to forced internment currently practiced in Australia and New Zealand. Let’s call it exactly what the practice is, rather than skirt around it.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

I would rather leave the word games to the woke left (‘racist’, ‘misogyny’, ‘transphobia’, etc.) and discuss the substance instead of the semantics. Life is really too short to argue about to what extent some state of affairs match which definition of ‘concentration camp’, or ‘toxic masculinity’ – or, for that matter, ‘vaccine’. If you can only discuss matters in terms that presuppose that you are right and everyone else is both wrong and evil, that is your problem. But in that case we have nothing to say to each other, and I prefer not to waste my time.

Last edited 6 months ago by Rasmus Fogh