BoJo’s Tories Toy With Omicron

Photograph Source: Susan Jane Golding – CC BY 2.0

“In the coming months we will beat Covid – we will vaccinate everyone in our country and we will be able to remove restrictions. In the not-too-distant future, we will be able to reopen businesses, see friends in each other’s houses and hold our loved ones again”.

– Boris Johnson (14 March 2021)

“[We celebrate those] getting jabbed not just for themselves, for ourselves, but for friends and family and everyone we meet. That, after all, is the teaching of Jesus Christ, whose birth is at the heart of this enormous festival – that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves”.

– Boris Johnson (video statement filmed in front of a Christmas tree in Downing Street, 24 December 2021)

If BoJo Johnson were a fairground fortune-teller, he’d be mobbed and beaten-up just about every time by furious clients wanting their money back. Alas, he is only the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and so far nothing can be done about his mismanagement of the Covid pandemic (including his ridiculous and far-fetched predictions about its future courses).

As for the ventriloquizing of the teaching of Jesus on loving thy neighbour— this, by numerous accounts (including his own family), is perhaps a bit rich coming from someone who has only loved himself.

Coronavirus infections are surging in Britain as Omicron replaced Delta as the dominant variant.

A total of 122,186 reported daily Covid cases have been recorded on Friday 24 December according to the latest government figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) — another record number of cases in a single day. In addition, 1,171 people were hospitalized with the virus and 137 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid.

The ONS data also showed Covid infection levels reaching a new record high. About 1 in 35 people in private dwellings in England had Covid in the week to 19 December, an increase from 1 in 45 in the 7 days to 16 December. In London about 1 in 20 people were likely to test positive for Covid-19, the highest proportion for any region in England.

At some hospitals in London, which was the first region to be affected by the new variant, the number of staff off ill with Covid has trebled since the start of December, according to NHS England’s figures.

While evidence is starting to show that Omicron may be less likely to lead to serious illness than Delta, studies also show that it is 4.2 times more transmissible in its early stage than Delta.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) estimates that an individual with Omicron is 50%-70% less likely to be admitted to a hospital than someone with the Delta variant.

To deal with the surge the government passed rules, including requiring people to wear masks in public places. A substantial number of BoJo’s MPs (99) voted against his rules, and he had to rely on the support of the main opposition Labour Party to get them through.

Medical and public health experts had recommended more stringent measures, adopted elsewhere in Europe, but BoJo is hostage to the anti-science and pro-business wing of his party. Faced with accusations of caving in to his medical and scientific advisers who supposedly want to impose a “lockdown by stealth”, BoJo has refused to impose further measures before Christmas.

The government is also considering sending door-to-door teams equipped with Covid shots to the dwellings of the 5 million unvaccinated Brits. A trial has already been conducted in Ipswich, Suffolk.

The fact that Omicron is less likely to cause serious illness than the Delta and Alpha variants may turn out to be a lucky break for BoJo, at least until the New Year.

After being battered for weeks on a number of fronts, and with investigations pending (the donor-payment for refurbishing his Downing Street apartment and the Downing Street lockdown parties last Christmas), and with Tory MPs speculating openly about who might replace him, BoJo reckoned he was too weak as prime minister to risk another parliamentary showdown with his truculent MPs, many of whom see no way of dealing with the pandemic beyond “let Omicron rip”.

Emboldened after having backed BoJo into a corner, anti-science Tory MPs warned the 2 main contenders to replace him, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, that they will harm their prospects unless they oppose strongly another round of Covid measures in England.

Typical of the anti-science MPs is the American-born Joy Morrisey, who said in a since deleted tweet that England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, should “defer” to politicians like her:

“Perhaps the covid unelected public health spokesperson should defer to what our ELECTED members of parliament and the prime minister have decided. I know it’s difficult to remember but this is not how democracy works. This is not a public health socialist state”.

While Whitty has been too deferential towards BoJo (who will throw him under the bus when there is an official Covid inquiry), media, both mainstream and social, were quick to point out the disparity between Morrisey’s credentials and Whitty’s.

Whitty, described by colleagues as a “polymath”, has a doctorate in medical science from Oxford; 2 diplomas, in tropical medicine and hygiene, and economics; and 3 master’s degrees, in epidemiology, medical law and business administration. By contrast, Morrisey’s highest qualification is a master’s degree in European social policy from the London School of Economics.

While he caved-in immediately to his mutinous MPs, BoJo is likely to “frame the narrative” in a different way, that is, by saying that far from dithering, he was holding his nerve, and this, along with his responsible decision-making, prevented over-zealous lockdown measures from being introduced before Christmas. Many Tory MPs, who owe their seats to BoJo 2019 election victory, are not likely to push their luck and press too hard against his opportunistic narrative-framing.

The devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales, and the North of Ireland, where the English Tory presence is nugatory, have already introduced stricter precautionary measures.

BoJo is due to make an announcement on possible new restrictions after this article goes to press, but he is expected to say that Omicron’s less severe effects when compared to its predecessor variants supports retaining the status quo on restrictions.

At the same time, events have overtaken the British, and other, governments. The Omicron variant has taken a toll on airline crews and airport staff. Passengers travelling over the Christmas holiday have been hit with disruption worldwide after airlines cancelled more than 4,500 flights, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware.

Shopping has been affected, as British consumers stayed away from the traditional Boxing Day (26 December) sales out of concern over the spread of the Omicron variant. Visits to high streets, shopping centres and retail parks are down more than 45% on pre-pandemic levels, according to industry sources.

Brexit is likely to vie with Covid for the headlines in the coming days.

Many Brits will be in for a shock on New Year’s Day, when they discover that far from being “done”, Brexit is barely started.

Full post-Brexit customs controls coming into force on 1 January 2022 are likely to cause significant disruption, as many UK firms are unprepared for the new border operating model, with its increased red tape (new customs declarations, rules-of-origin checks and relevant tariffs) and costs required to import goods from the EU from that day.

In addition, British importers and exporters will have to provide extra documentation that will be required for food, drink, plants, and products of animal origin to avoid tariffs and get a reduced rate of customs duty.

The extra costs generated by the new border operating model will no doubt be passed on to the consumer, at a time when the UK’s inflation rate is at its highest for 10 years, mainly as a result of rising energy prices and supply chain disruptions.

The Tories are unlikely to rise in the opinion polls for the foreseeable future.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.