James Forsyth

Boris’s festive fear

Boris's festive fear
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Until a few days ago, ministers could see how the government might regain its footing after several weeks of self-inflicted damage. The argument, as I say in this week's magazine, went like this: as Christmas approaches, voters will see that life in Britain — and specifically England — carries on with very few Covid restrictions whereas elsewhere in Europe more draconian measures have been imposed.

This scenario seemed plausible. Austria was in lockdown and heading for compulsory vaccination; there had been rioting in Holland after the announcement of an 8 p.m. curfew and several German states had cancelled Christmas markets. In private, secretaries of state were making the case that the decision to remove all lockdown restrictions in July had been vindicated by events and that Britain’s vaccine rollout meant most of the elderly population had been offered a booster jab ahead of any winter wave. Few ministers wanted to state the argument too strongly (Covid has a nasty habit of punishing any complacency), but Nadhim Zahawi, the former vaccines minister, now Education Secretary, did declare last week that the UK would be the first major economy to exit the pandemic.

Now many ministers are relieved that they were not as optimistic in public as Zahawi. Concern over the new Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, has meant the government is starting to reimpose some Covid rules: restrictions on international travel, self-isolation for contacts of those who have tested positive for the new strain, and masks on public transport and in shops. There is a nervous wait to see how bad things will get. No. 10 stresses that no further measures will be taken until the government has more information on Omicron.

Politically, imposing more restrictions would be very tricky for Johnson. Tory MPs have become more opposed to lockdowns over time: 32 Tory backbenchers rebelled against even the self-isolation measures Johnson announced on Saturday in response to Omicron. If in a few weeks or early next year Johnson believes he has to introduce more serious measures, it seems very likely he would have to rely on opposition votes to get them through.