LBC Views: No10 must be hoping their major Omicron gamble will pay off

4 December 2021, 07:26 | Updated: 4 January 2022, 12:34

No10 must be hoping their major Omicron gamble will pay off, Ben Kentish writes
No10 must be hoping their major Omicron gamble will pay off, Ben Kentish writes. Picture: LBC

By Ben Kentish

Boris Johnson is in a bind of the sort his team hoped they would never have to face again.

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Should Christmas parties be called off? If not, how many people are allowed to go? Is kissing under the mistletoe allowed?

If you were following government advice in recent days, you would well be forgiven for answering all of the above with: sorry, I haven’t got a clue.

The messaging from ministers and their scientific advisers this week has been horribly mixed. On several occasions, Downing Street has had to row back from comments made by government representatives suggesting the public should take precautions that are not included in official government advice.

What is going on? The answer is that, once again, Boris Johnson is in a Covid-related bind of the sort that, before Omicron came to refer to anything other than an ancient Greek letter, his team hoped they would never have to face again. The dilemma is the same one that has plagued leaders throughout the pandemic: how far to go in introducing measures that help quash Covid but that also have the effect of quashing the activities that many companies rely on.

That juggling act is why the current advice seems so contradictory: by law, you now have to wear a mask on a bus or a train or if you nip into a shop or post office, but not if you’re packed into a crowded pub, restaurant, café or theatre, where clearly the risk is almost certainly greater. It all comes down to wanting to protect the economy; the thinking is that very few people will avoid shopping or using public transport just because they have to wear a mask while doing so, whereas the same is not true of pubs, restaurants, cinemas and so on.

Similarly, ministers have brought back testing on Day 2 for people entering the country but have so far rejected calls from scientists and opposition parties to also re-introduce pre-departure tests for all arrivals in the UK – a measure that government scientists say is “valuable”. The concern, though, is that for a travel industry that is only just getting back on its feet, more burdensome testing could cause fresh carnage and cancellations ahead of the busy winter holiday season.

The balance No10 is striving for is summed up in a phrase that the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has used repeatedly this week: the government, he says, is focused on “protecting lives and livelihoods”. In other words, Downing Street accepts the need to reintroduce some measures but is very wary, at this stage, of doing anything that could prove too damaging to businesses and the economy.

This is partly explained by there being two key differences between the situation the country now faces compared with where we were earlier in the pandemic.

The first is the lack of certainty about the Omicron variant. The fact that almost 80% of UK adults are double-vaccinated means it is no longer inevitable that the predicted surge in cases will lead to a corresponding rise in hospitalisations. Now, the crucial questions are how well Omicron will be able to evade our defences and re-infect people, and whether vaccines will still protect those people from getting previously ill. If vaccines still mostly work and what is coming down the tracks is a wave of cases that mostly resemble a bad cold, that would necessitate a very different response to that needed if Omicron is found to frequently cause severe illness even in fully vaccinated people. Unlike with previous waves, this is not simply a case of the government judging the right point on the upward curve to impose restrictions; this time, it must first (along with the rest of the world) establish the nature of the enemy that it is dealing with before deciding how to proceed.

The second big difference is that much of the financial support that has been in place for most of the pandemic has now been withdrawn. In particular, the furlough scheme ending means that even a relatively small drop in revenue could leave many companies forced to lay off employees in a way that they were previously able to avoid. That would lead to unemployment, which is currently lower than was feared earlier in the year, leaping upwards again in a way that would be both economically and politically dangerous.

The anecdotal evidence of Christmas parties, drinks and gatherings being cancelled because of Omicron will already have set alarm bells ringing in the Treasury, given the precarious position that many hospitality companies are in.

Hence why Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid have not stopped at saying that decisions on whether Christmas parties go ahead are a matter for those organising and attending them, but have actively encouraged people not to call a halt to the festivities. Johnson told a Downing Street press conference on Monday: “We don’t want people to cancel such events.”

From a health perspective, the current government advice to carry on pretty much as normal seems at odds with the ongoing scientific concern about Omicron and the need to slow its transmission across the UK as much as possible. The government’s scientific advisory committee, SAGE, has already warned that “very stringent response measures” may be needed: “It is important to be prepared for a potentially very significant wave of infections with associated hospitalisations now, ahead of data being available.”

That is why the current government approach is a major gamble. If the Omicron variant does prove to be as troublesome as many scientists fear, and forces the government to impose further measures in the coming weeks, then ministers will have to answer serious questions about why they failed to do more earlier. Johnson and his team will face criticism for telling people to go to parties just as the variant was starting to spread in the UK.

The economic considerations will also be short-lived. If there is anything we have learnt during this pandemic it is surely that failing to act quickly means even tougher restrictions are needed later, bringing more economic damage than was ultimately necessary. It is not clear that this lesson from last autumn has been learned in Whitehall.

Those in No10 are hoping that their latest gamble pays off and that Omicron is found not to pose as big a threat as it currently seems it might. Even if some measures have to be reintroduced this winter, there is confidence in government that the type of drastic restrictions seen last year will not be needed. But if the variant does prove to be the highly troubling one that scientists have long feared, Boris Johnson and his team will once again be asked why they didn’t do more sooner to protect both lives and livelihoods.