If a day is a long time in politics, 36 hours is a lifetime with this government. On Tuesday morning, Dominic Raab told the BBC’s Today programme:
“‘We don't think Plan B is required. Why? Because of the success of the vaccine programme.’
It was a reasonable analysis and a sound conclusion. The UK has delivered an incredible 120 million Covid vaccines in the last year, including 21 million booster doses in the last few months. In South Africa, the epicentre of the Omicron outbreak, only 25 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated and almost no one has had a booster shot. Whatever the situation in southern Africa – and it doesn’t look particularly perilous right now – the UK is better prepared for an Omicron surge than almost any other country in the world.
And yet at 6pm the following day, Boris Johnson was once again on television telling the public to brace themselves for more restrictions on their liberty. What happened in those 36 hours? Did the World Health Organisation release crucial new data showing that Omicron is more deadly than first feared? On the contrary, the WHO’s emergencies director said: ‘We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there's no reason to expect that it wouldn't be so’ for the new variant. He noted that Omicron is no more dangerous than previous variants. ‘If anything,’ he said, ‘the direction is towards less severity’.
Did scientists publish new evidence showing that the vaccines are no use against Omicron? Not at all. Instead, we got the first glimpse of a study showing that three doses of the Pfizer vaccine are extremely effective against the variant. Another study published on Tuesday found that prior infection combined with vaccination is also highly protective against new variants of SARS-CoV-2.
What about doctors in South Africa where the new variant has been circulating for weeks? Were they suddenly raising the alarm? Far from it. Instead, we heard from the CEO of a South African hospital chain telling us, for the umpteenth time, that patients diagnosed with Omicron have symptoms which are ‘far milder than anything we experienced during the first three waves.’
On balance, the outlook for the UK as it prepares for the Omicron wave was better yesterday than it had been the day before when Raab said that Plan B was unnecessary. If you want an explanation for the sudden lurch towards vaccine passports, mandatory masks and working from home, you won’t find it in epidemiological science, but you may find it in political science.
On Tuesday morning, the furore about an illegal Christmas party in Downing Street last December seemed like it could be contained. Boris Johnson had denied there was a party and the government insisted that no rules had been broken. Without new evidence, the story seemed destined to fade away outside the Westminster bubble.
Then came the Allegra Stratton video and the overwhelming suspicion that the Christmas bash had not only taken place but that the government was laughing about it behind our backs. Once the video became public, events moved at a dizzying pace, first with a cabinet meeting to discuss Plan B, then the resignation of a tearful Stratton, and then the announcement of Plan B measures.
Despite consulting the jeremiads at Sage, there was simply not enough evidence to cobble together at short notice to justify the sudden change of gear. Poor old Chris Whitty was wheeled out to do his thing and for the first time in the pandemic found himself calling for tough new restrictions while standing next to graphs showing declining hospitalisation and deaths.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Sajid Javid resorted to ‘Disco Stu’ mathematics to justify his extraordinary claim that the UK was heading towards one million cases of Covid a day by the end of this month. He said that if there were 10,000 cases of Omicron in the country (only 568 have been confirmed) and if the numbers double every two or three days, a million cases per day would be the result. This would be far beyond anything seen in the most Covid-ravaged parts of the world since the pandemic began. Moreover, rates are no longer doubling every two or three days in the Gauteng province of South Africa where Omicorn was first discovered.
In 2020, Covid policy was often based on reasonable worst case scenarios. It now seems to be based on insane nightmare scenarios.
Johnson insists that this was all a coincidence, that Plan B was not a ‘dead cat’ to distract the public from the wine and cheese party that was allegedly held at his house. We may never know whether the new Christmas restrictions were designed to take the our minds off the government ignoring last year’s Christmas restrictions. Either way, Boris Johnson has displayed an appallingly cavalier approach to liberty.
If he has introduced these arbitrary, capricious and almost certainly ineffective rules to knock unfavourable stories off the front pages, it is disgraceful, but it would scarcely be any better if he had done it sincerely. SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay and there is every reason to believe that it will continuing mutating. If this is how government is going to react to every new variant that comes along, God help us all.