The emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 caused huge concern around the world when it was discovered in southern Africa in mid-November, not least because it was found to be highly transmissible and because the 32 mutations to its spike protein suggested it might be able to resist current vaccines.
Prior to Christmas, UK prime minister Boris Johnson introduced a series of “Plan B” social restrictions to combat the threat posed by the strain, ordering people to work from home, wear masks in public places, present a Covid pass proving their vaccination status in exchange for entry to crowded public venues and to get a third booster jab as a matter of urgency.
He declined to tighten the rules ahead of the festive season getting underway in earnest, a decision that allowed him to avoid a repeat of his notorious address of 19 December 2020, and continued to stick to his guns in the early weeks of January, despite total daily cases in England rocketing to a pandemic high of 218,724 on 4 January, according to the UK Health Security Agency, despite pressure growing from experts to take a tougher stance to support beleagured NHS staff.
Having weathered that storm, the rate of Omicron infections began to fall, enabling the prime minister to repeal those restrictions on Wednesday 19 January, with working from home dropped immediately and masks and passes abandoned from Thursday 27 January.
Taking time out from the firestorm still raging over the Downing Street “Partygate” scandal, Mr Johnson told the Commons that he also hopes to remove the requirement to self-isolate from 24 March, saying: “There will soon come a time when we can remove the legal requirement to self-isolate altogether, just as we don't place legal obligations on people to isolate if they have flu.
“As Covid becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance, urging people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others.”
Changes had already been made to testing and self-isolation guidance in order to minimise staff absences and prevent a further major hit on the UK economy, a primary concern among Conservatives keen to avoid a repeat of the “pingdemic” experienced last summer at the hands of an overzealous NHS Test and Trace app.
Responding, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the prime minister of being “too distracted to do the job”.
“The 438 deaths recorded yesterday are a solemn reminder that this pandemic is not over,” Sir Keir said.
“We need to remain vigilant, learn the lessons from the government’s mistakes, with new variants highly likely we must have a robust plan to live well with Covid.”
The leader of the opposition is right to be cautious.
Daily case numbers may have fallen considerably from that early year peak but were still at almost 110,000 on the day of Mr Johnson’s announcement and members of the public are still being advised to exercise caution and get their boosters, which so far less than 64 per cent of the UK’s adult population has done, enthusiasm having apparently stalled.
However, barring another extreme spike in cases, perhaps caused by the emergence of another new variant of the virus, we are unlikely to see another lockdown imposed on the British public for the time being, with the measure considered the most extreme available and a last restort.
Lockdowns have proven unpopular with the public due to the mental and physical toll they take on individuals and because of the devastation they cause to British industry, hence the particular anger expressed by many at the idea that Mr Johnson and his aides were swilling wine at Downing Street and ignoring the rules while ordinary citizens dutifully complied.
Shorter circuit-breaker lockdowns could still be a possibility in future should the circumstances change but it seems more likely that social restrictions will continue to be imposed in stages, according to necessity and in line with the data, the situation kept constantly under review and the steps imposed adjusted accordingly.
Even before Omicron began to cast its sinister shadow across the globe, many Britons were already glancing anxiously towards the continent as Austria and the Netherlands reintroduced lockdowns in response to spiking cases of Covid in the autumn.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) had said it was “very worried” about the spread in Europe and warned 700,000 more deaths could be recorded by March unless urgent action was taken, bringing the total number of fatalities on the continent to 2.2 million since the pandemic began.
Prior to the scare parked by Omicron, Mr Johnson’s government had been deeply reluctant to reimpose restrictions at all, despite consistently high case numbers.
While the vaccines kept death rates low after the mass rollout began to have an effect in spring 2021, infection levels typically hovered around the 40,000-per-day mark from 19 July - “Freedom Day” - to the arrival of the new variant on these shores.
Mr Johnson also appeared to be concerned that further restrictions might lead to social disorder, having seen anti-lockdown protests - some of them violent - erupt in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy and Croatia.
Londoners were certainly unhappy about the initial return of the mask mandate, accusing the PM of hypocrisy for declining to wear one himself at several public engagements.
However, in other quarters, there appeared to be a clear appetite for new restrictions even before Omicron, at least according to the polls.
A survey by Savanta ComRes revealed that 45 per cent of adults would be in favour of a selective lockdown targeting only those who had declined to get their Covid jabs and therefore could pose an ongoing risk to others.
But, until the fresh strain threw a fresh spanner into the works, there was a credible case for believing that the UK was in such a strong position that it could avoid the worst of the outbreak marauding across Europe.
Although Britain’s infection rate has remained high for months, it has also been highly stable until recently, lingering at a seven-day average of around 600 daily cases per million people, whereas Austria and the Netherlands have suddenly spiked to 1,500 and 1,250 respectively from well below that starting point since the beginning of October.
Part of the reason for this is that the UK was hit by the more infectious Alpha and Delta variants of the coronavirus sooner and was therefore able to tackle them ahead of its European neighbours and unlock earlier.
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