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Tuesday, 21 May 2024
Britain’s Covid Checkmate
James Denselow

In July Britain celebrated ‘Freedom Day’ with the dropping of Covid restrictions. The successful development, acquisition and mass roll out of vaccines meant that the population was protected enough to return to normality. ‘Peak Covid’ had passed, or so people thought. The arrival of Omicron signalled a new variant with what scientists described as an “eyewateringly high" infection rate. 

Suddenly Britain’s hard-fought freedom from Covid has been plunged into uncertainty by Omicron. Indeed, the country is witnessing the coming together of several different crises into an emerging mega crisis. The first issue is that much is unknown about Omicron. Whilst few can doubt it is far more infectious than its predecessors, there is not yet the data on whether it is more lethal or not and quite how vaccine resistant it is. The time lag between discovering the variant and it raging out of control is what has pushed many scientific advisors to recommend the Government brings back ‘lock down’ policies but that is when Covid crashes into the politics of the day. 

The Boris Johnson government has never been as weak as it is at this moment. Behind in the national polling, it recently suffered a historic byelection defeat in North Shropshire. One of the closest advisors to the Prime Minister and the man in charge of negotiating Brexit, Lord Frost, then resigned from the Government arguing he disagreed with the direction Johnson was taking in lieu of Omicron. 

That direction was a fairly mild set of ‘Plan B’ policies which saw mask wearing mandatory again in shops and public transport and people told to work from home where they could. More serious restrictions suddenly came into view with Government Ministers reacting to record breaking rates of infection with a reminder that ‘all options’ were being considered. Yet the Government had another problem in the form of a series of damaging leaks and revelations seeming to show that Number 10, the epicentre of British political power, had been home to a series of events that would have been against the lockdown rules of the past 12-months. 

Whilst the public was banned from a range of normal life activities, such as attending the funerals of family and friends there were apparently a series of Christmas parties at Number 10, that sparked fury and a rolling avalanche of negative media headlines. Images and video footage of these events kept pouring fuel on the fire and have led some to argue that the Government has no credibility when it comes to imposing new restrictions considering its own adherence to its own rules in the past. 

Within Johnson’s Conservative Party there is growing anger against any form of further curtailing of civil liberties. In the parliamentary vote to impose ‘Plan B’ policies 99 of his own MPs voted against the measures, which only thus passed due to the support of the Labour Opposition. Number 10 therefore knows that even if it wanted to push more serious restrictions it would unlikely be able to do so with the support of its own party. This is the checkmate that Johnson finds himself in at present. 

The most obvious way out of course is if Omicron proves anywhere as near as bad as some of the projections have shown. This is the bind that surely Johnson is aware of having suffered a life-threatening bout of Covid himself back in 2020. An overwhelmed health care service is a very visceral thing to happen; ambulances backed up unable to unload patients, ICUs full, people being treated in corridors and of course the grim daily drip-drip of deaths.  

Already the healthcare service is postponing non-essential operations, adding to a record backlog in people needing treatment. There is even talk of ‘virtual wards’ that will be expanded in a bid to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by Omicron, according to the Sunday Times. The measures could see around 15 per cent of Covid patients treated at home, with their oxygen levels monitored remotely. 

Interestingly whilst the Government is checkmated, the British public are taking matters into their own hands. There have been mass cancellations of events indoors, holiday plans and the scale of families who come together this Christmas is likely to be far lower than a normal year. In short, a Government that cannot lead doesn’t guarantee a population in limbo, especially one that has lived through such an extended Covid era already.

James Denselow

BY: James Denselow