Covid: What Boris Johnson said last Christmas and how the situation then compares with Omicron now

PM forced to scrap five-day restrictions amnesty and place huge swathes of country under tier four in December 2020 – as history threatens to repeat itself

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 17 December 2021 16:49 GMT
Boris Johnson addressing the nation on 19 December 2020

Few Britons will remember Christmas 2020 with much fondness, recalling a moment of bitter last-minute disappointment, frustration and loneliness, the perfect coda to a year to forget and a prelude to the even bleaker January and February months to follow.

The festive plans of millions of people were thwarted, leaving them unable to reunite in person with family and friends in a season ordinarily devoted to togetherness and now once more consigned to Zoom.

What made it all the sadder was seeing the brief glimmer of optimism with which December had begun so cruelly snuffed out.

The UK had just completed a four-week circuit-breaker lockdown in November in the hope of stemming rising case numbers and securing a festive season without strict social restrictions in place when, on 8 December, Coventry grandmother Margaret Keenan, 91, became the first person in the world to receive a vaccine jab.

A genuinely historic moment and a turning point in the fightback against Covid-19, the arrival of the vaccines was supposed to herald the beginning of the end for a plague that had blighted the year and wrought havoc across the world.

But a new mutation of the coronavirus discovered in Kent in November and subsequently named the alpha variant by the World Health Organisation had given fresh cause for alarm, proving to be 70 per cent more transmissible than the original variant.

Its spread cast a shadow over the promise of the vaccines to liberate the public from lockdowns but the prime minister, Boris Johnson, seemed reluctant to acknowledge the reality of the situation, insisting it would be “inhuman and against the instincts of many people in this country” to “ban” Christmas as he alleged Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer would like to do, having already levelled the same charge against his opposite number in October.

Finally, scientists on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NervTag) advised him during a meeting with ministers on Friday 18 December that action had become unavoidable.

After securing Cabinet sign-off the following morning - on a day in which the UK recorded 27,052 new Covid cases and a further 534 deaths, taking the national death toll since March to 67,075 - Mr Johnson took to his lectern in 10 Downing Street to address the nation.

He announced with a “very heavy heart” that he was cutting short the government’s planned five-day restrictions amnesty over the Christmas period allowing households to mix and would be introducing tough new “tier 4” rules for huge swathes of the country, particularly the south east.

“As prime minister, it’s my duty to take difficult decisions, to do what is right to protect the people of this country,” his speech began.

“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus and the potential risk it poses, it is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.

“In England, those living in tier 4 areas should not mix with anyone outside their own household at Christmas, though support bubbles will remain in place, for those at particular risk of loneliness or isolation.”

The tier 4 ban on households mixing would cover the whole of inner and outer London, as well as the counties of Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Surrey, excluding Waverley.

Peterborough, Portsmouth, Gosport, Havant, Rother and Hastings, as well as the whole of Essex except for Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring, would also be sent into tier 4 and subjected to the Christmas bubble ban.

The prime minister continued: “Across the rest of the country, the Christmas rules allowing up to three households to meet will now be limited to Christmas Day only, rather than the five days as previously set out.

“I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year, and how important it is, for instance, for grandparents to see their grandchildren and for families to be together.

“So I know how disappointing this will be. But we have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science. When the science changes, we must change our response.

“And when the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defence.

“And, as your prime minister, I sincerely believe there is no alternative open to me. Without action, the evidence suggests infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.”

Asked what message he would send to people who have made plans and spent money to prepare for Christmas, Mr Johnson said: “Of course, we bitterly regret that this is necessary this year. I know how much love and caring thought goes into preparations for Christmas.

“I suppose the message is that this is the year to lift a glass to those who aren’t there in the knowledge that it’s precisely because they aren’t there to celebrate Christmas with you this year that we will have a better chance that they’ll be there next year to celebrate Christmas with you.”

Speaking for many in response to the announcement was London mayor Sadiq Khan, who expressed his sorrow and sympathy for citizens of the capital and said the city “faces its toughest Christmas since the war”, attacking Mr Johnson for mishandling the pandemic, sowing “chaos and confusion” and making “irresponsible promises” that had raised expectations only to dash them.

“There is nothing wrong with the prime minister wanting to save jobs and wanting families to see each other,” The Independent’s editorial read that day. “But this is a matter of character and of judgement, and Mr Johnson has repeatedly been found wanting.”

Twelve months later, here we are again.

Another new variant - Omicron, originating again in late November, this time in southern Africa - is spreading across the country, perhaps at a rate of 200,000 infections per day, as the UK Health Security Agency has indicated.

Despite the triumphant rollout of the vaccines over the course of the calendar year, which has seen some 89 per cent of UK adults receive a first jab, 81 per cent receive a second and 44 per cent (and counting) a third booster shot, new restrictions have again had to be introduced and severer ones could be just around the corner.

After declaring an end to social distancing and mask-wearing on 19 July, an occasion he unwisely branded “Freedom Day”, Mr Johnson was forced to return to the podium on Saturday 27 November to announce the implementation of “Plan B” measures, reviving mask-wearing in shops and on public transport, adding more countries to the UK travel “red list” and the eventual expansion of the booster vaccine rollout to all adults.

While the true extent of the Omicron variant was not known at that point - and much still remains uncertain given the present scarcity of data - the PM was forced to further tighten the rules on Wednesday 8 December.

Taking a brief respite from firefighting Tory scandals over second jobs, the refurbishment of his flat and office Christmas parties his team are alleged to have held the previous December - just days before he cancelled the Christmas plans of voters - Mr Johnson extended the mask remit to cinemas, theatres and places of worship, asked people to work from home where possible and made NHS Covid passes mandatory for entry to crowded venues.

Cases now are more than double what they were a year ago - 93,045 were recorded on Friday 17 December alone - but deaths and hospitalisations are much lower thanks to the vaccines.

However, the highly transmissible Omicron variant could soon cause those numbers to rise too, particularly if it does prove to be significantly vaccine-resistant, as feared.

Should the UK indeed see a “tidal wave” of Omicron infections, as Mr Johnson has warned, the NHS could once more be overwhelmed, a development that would have grave consequences indeed.

Speaking on Monday during a visit to a vaccination clinic in west London, Mr Johnson announced the first death from Omicron and said: “I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus, I think that’s something we need to set on one side and just recognise the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population.”

He continued: “Throughout the pandemic I’ve been at great pains to stress to the public that we have to watch where the pandemic is going and we take whatever steps are necessary to protect public health.

“We think the steps that we are taking - so Plan B, combined with a hugely ambitious acceleration of the booster campaign, bringing it forward by a month... We think that’s the right approach.”

He declined, however, to commit to not introducing further restrictions before Christmas, clearing the way for history to repeat itself.

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