End this dismal cycle of restrictions


Yesterday must count as among the worst days of Boris Johnson’s premiership. The leak of a toe-curling video showing senior aides laughing at a “fictional” Downing Street Christmas party last year unleashed the public’s fury on the whole Government. Here, it appeared, was the hypocrisy of an administration that instructed the public not to socialise, while it felt no obligation to obey the same rules. Worse, ministers had spent the week telling the public that nobody had done anything wrong.

Mr Johnson did the right thing in apologising for the video. There is to be an inquiry into what happened. Allegra Stratton, who featured in the video, resigned from her position, saying she would regret her remarks for the rest of her life. However, it is not clear that even this will draw a line under the scandal. Almost inevitably, if unfairly, Mr Johnson’s announcement yesterday of fresh Covid restrictions will be viewed by many as a cynical attempt to move on from “Partygate”.

For months, the Government had managed to hold the line against irrational demands for renewed restrictions. It was possible to entertain the hope that the UK had begun to learn to live with Covid, thanks to the vaccines. Now, the fragile freedom the country has enjoyed since July has been shattered. In a little over a fortnight since the omicron variant emerged, the Government has reimposed travel restrictions and reintroduced mask mandates. Earlier this week, travel testing was tightened up yet again. Now, with a grim air of inevitability, Mr Johnson has announced the roll-out of Plan B of the Covid winter plan.

It was not as if we weren’t warned that the freedom the country enjoyed over the summer was contingent on whether the NHS said it could cope during the winter. For months, ministers have been told that this gave health leaders a perverse incentive to demand new restrictions, instead of doing the hard work of increasing capacity. It was always likely that a new variant would emerge that could be substantially more transmissible, as omicron appears to be.

Yet that hardly makes yesterday’s announcements any less terrible. People will be encouraged to work from home again, at huge economic and societal cost. Vaccine passes will be required for some venues, burdening businesses with the responsibility for enforcement. Face coverings will have to be worn in more places.

One estimate puts the cost of Plan B at up to £800 million a week. These measures also amount to a bizarre mix of restrictions that, taken together, make little sense. The Government is asking people not to go into the office but public transport remains packed at the weekend with revellers and shoppers. Why are we introducing vaccine passports, when we know that vaccinated people can still catch omicron? Whether the rules are even enforceable following the behaviour of Downing Street aides last year is an open question.

Once again, the country is being asked to make sacrifices because of institutional incompetence and bureaucratic myopia. Astonishingly, some evidence suggests that NHS capacity has not increased since March last year, but has shrunk despite billions of pounds of extra spending. By the Government’s own logic, these restrictions have only been judged necessary because of its failure to put the booster programme “on steroids”. Early research indicates that three doses of the vaccines do still provide substantial protection against omicron. The NHS is seemingly deemed to be vulnerable this Christmas because many people have not yet had that third jab.

Perhaps the public’s reaction to these new measures will be one of resignation. Much of Europe has also re-entered restrictions, though largely because of the old delta variant. But anger should not be discounted, especially after Partygate. We appear to be stuck in a dismal cycle of semi-lockdowns, our lives brought to a standstill every time something emerges that might trouble the health service.

The Prime Minister hinted last night at the need for a debate on moving away from such restrictions as a way of curbing the virus. Indeed, the question now is: when and how will this ever end? If the summer was a false dawn, what will our political and health service leaders do, not only to avert the risk of even tougher restrictions this Christmas, but next year and the year after? Will they ever grasp the necessity of reform to the state bureaucracy, particularly to the NHS, which remains beholden to the interests of the unions? Will they ever build sufficient resilience into the wider public health system and its ability to deliver jabs more rapidly at scale?

Will they ever fully square with the public that Covid will never be eliminated, and that we will have to adapt our society to the manageable long-term risk that presents, warts and all? If not, the future looks bleak – for Britain and the freedoms we used to cherish.



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