Boris Johnson has adopted a minimalist approach to the omicron variant – for now, at least. He will be hoping desperately that the low-level measures he has announced will prove “temporary”, as he described them. But he knows he may be faced with some very tricky decisions when the government reviews them in three weeks.
True, it is “early days” after the discovery of the new variant. Yet it is revealing that Johnson stopped short of activating his plan B in England, which includes asking people to work from home (still policy in Scotland and Wales) and using vaccine passports in crowded venues. Wearing masks will be a legal requirement in shops and on public transport, but not while moving around in pubs, cafes and restaurants; ministers have opted for travel restrictions, and are wary of stalling the patchy economic recovery.
The prime minister will hope to get some credit for acting quickly, as he patently failed to do in previous phases of the pandemic. As ever, he will be criticised by some people for going too far and by others for not going far enough. But he is open to the charge of ignoring the most obvious measure – a return to working from home where possible, which the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) believes has the “greatest individual impact” on reducing transmission of the virus.
The pressure for more curbs could hardly have come at a worse time for Johnson. He was hoping for a relatively quiet life in the run-up to Christmas, after a turbulent three weeks sparked by his spectacular own goal in trying to save Owen Paterson. But today’s “Christmas plans thrown into doubt” headlines will remind Johnson of his nightmare before Christmas a year ago, when he resisted tougher restrictions, only to impose them at the last minute. In a round of media interviews today, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, told people to plan for the festive season “as normal”. He insisted, rather optimistically, that it was “nowhere near” the right time to introduce plan B measures.
The timing is also awful because Johnson is now in a weaker place within his party than when restrictions were mooted in the past. The vocal minority of Tory MPs who oppose curbs, either on libertarian grounds or out of concerns over economic harm, will be in a stronger position because of his relative weakness. He will not relish any more rows with his increasingly rebellious backbenchers.
Johnson will also be keen to avoid handing more ammunition to right-wing critics outside his party, such as the Reform Party and Nigel Farage; they are already making hay over high public spending, tax rises, inflation and the government’s failure to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats. Another lockdown would be a Christmas gift to them.
Johnson will resist that until there really is no alternative. This time, the government machine will help rather than hinder him. The two key cabinet committees on Covid (strategy and operations) now include Johnson, along with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, both of whom are instinctively wary of introducing restrictions.
Javid and Barclay took over from Matt Hancock and Michael Gove respectively, both of whom were more likely to support calls for curbs by the government’s scientific advisers. Javid is a lockdown sceptic who pledged that there would be “no going back” to restrictions when he became health secretary in June.
It was a foolish promise to make, and might yet be added to the government’s list of broken ones. But Johnson will again hold back on tough curbs until the very last minute, undermining his claim to have learn lessons during the pandemic.
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