Katy Balls

Boris Johnson is in a bind on Covid

Boris Johnson is in a bind on Covid
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This morning, it’s the Tory party versus the scientists, with a number of Conservative MPs seeing red following Wednesday’s downbeat press conference on the Omicron variant. As the number of Covid cases soars, Boris Johnson has been accused of a lockdown by stealth – after he appeared alongside Chris Whitty in a press conference urging caution over Christmas. The Chief Medical Officer suggested people ought to prioritise the social events they most care about. This morning Whitty is giving evidence to MPs where he has suggested it is too early to say whether further restrictions will be needed.

None of this is landing well with the Tory party. As MPs such as Steve Baker probe Whitty on his warnings, government PPS Joy Morrissey has deleted a tweet in which she accused Whitty of speaking out of turn and going further than the government and elected members of parliament had agreed. In all of this, no one is quite sure where the Prime Minister sits. While Johnson hasn’t gone so far as to tell people to cancel their Christmas parties, the Prime Minister looks visibly concerned by the current direction of travel.

So, where does this all end? In the new issue of The Spectator, I explain why Downing Street went back on its promise of no further restrictions until more conclusive data was in and instead brought in Plan B. The thinking went that if Omicron cases were growing fast and vaccines offer less protection, then the NHS had to be in danger, so restrictions were needed to ‘buy time’. But the problem among MPs – and some ministers – is it’s unclear how much (if any) time was bought by a mask mandate. Sage believes that work-from-home guidance has only cut the R-number from 4.0 to 3.6.

Although the cabinet is divided on how to tackle Omicron, everyone can see the direction of travel. ‘On the current logic, we are heading to a lockdown in around three weeks,’ predicts one downbeat government source. ‘The government has decided cases are a problem. A million cases could be in about three weeks’ time.’ A new lockdown would mean more furlough and huge costs, at a time when the Treasury is reluctant to find any new Covid emergency funds. Just look at how the Chancellor is already under pressure to bail out the hospitality sector as they face numerous Christmas party cancellations.

The problem for Johnson is that if the Covid situation worsens and he brings in further restrictions, he is in a more vulnerable position than this time last year. Back then, Johnson said restrictions were only necessary until the vaccine ‘cavalry’ arrived. Now the bulk of the country is jabbed, yet restrictions have returned. ‘We can’t become a Covid state that locks down every winter,’ moans a minister. The emergency booster campaign is intended to stop this happening. But since Johnson suffered his biggest Tory rebellion to date over vaccine passports, it’s easy to see a situation where he has to rely on Labour support to introduce further restrictions— a dangerous place to be for a Prime Minister already on thin ice with his MPs.