3 December 2021

Is the Omicron overreaction a harbinger of Christmas future?

By

For a brief moment, it seemed Britain was finally waking up from the Covid nightmare. Cases were soaring across Europe, while the ‘dangerous and unethical experiment‘ undertaken here was beginning to look like a masterstroke. Restaurants were gearing up to the busiest time of year. Friends were planning festive gatherings. Businesses had booked their Christmas parties.

But last Tuesday, the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa. By Saturday, despite limited knowledge of the new strain, its transmissibility or potential vaccine escape, Boris Johnson had announced ‘Plan B lite’. Face masks would be mandatory in certain settings, PCR tests would required on day two for travellers to the UK regardless of vaccination status, and self-isolation was back for any contacts of those who had contracted the new strain.

Was the Government’s response ‘reasonable and proportionate’, as it claimed? It depends who you ask. Dr Angelique Coetzee, the doctor who discovered the new variant said: ‘I have been stunned at the response – and especially from Britain… nothing about this new variant warrants the extreme action the UK government has taken in response to it’.

Then again, as mathematical biologist Kit Yates pointedly tweeted:

Dr Jenny Harries, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer whose personal pronouncements on Coronavirus have been consistently wrong, warned the public that people should not socialise ‘when we don’t particularly need to’.

But what if you ask the British public? According to a YouGov poll this week, a jaw-dropping 20% of us would support a full lockdown. 81% support masks on public transport, 59% the 2-metre rule, 42% a return to the rule of six, and a similar number back a ban on large events.

These polls should always be taken with a pinch of salt – the mismatch between what people may say in Covid surveys and what they do in practice is a classic example of the difference between ‘stated preferences’ and ‘revealed preferences’. But it’s still a staggering figure, when even today the number of people in hospital with Covid in England has fallen below 6,000. There were more patients at the end of August than there are now. This time last year there were 13,000 – and that was after three weeks of lockdown.

So here’s a troubling thought for the freedom-minded: many people in Britain have, if not a vested interest then certainly a vested indifference to the continuation of lockdown restrictions. City high-flyers who’ve been longing to relocate to the Cotswolds benefit from the normalisation of working from home – and the longer the threat of restrictions hangs over our heads, the more likely it is that employers will accept WFH requests. Customer care centres – whose service has been worse than usual in the past 20 months – can continue to use the pandemic as a shield for their ineptitude. New variants hand anyone with an interest in perpetuating the narrative that ‘Our NHS’ is ‘overwhelmed’ or ‘at breaking point’ more ammunition. GPs now concerned not about the ‘worried well’ but the ‘legitimately sick’ can continue to avoid face-to-face appointments if the Covid panic endures.

The list goes on and on, and probably ends with the Government. November was a brutal month for Boris Johnson: his popularity among the Tory faithful took a hit following the toxic row over sleaze, the botched attempt to prevent Owen Paterson’s suspension from the Commons, scaled-back plans for social care reform, and growing concerns over the cost of living. Taking to the podium to set out a robust, precautionary response to this ‘crisis’ is painless compared to repairing divisions within the party – or even day-to-day governing.

Government messaging was so powerful and effective at the start of this crisis that vast swathes of the British public remain excessively terrified of the virus. Added to that is the perceived nobility of supporting restrictions, displaying strict adherence, and helping our fellow man. In staying home, protecting the NHS, saving lives.

As a consequence, a full return to the normality of 2019 is slipping from our grasp. Given the near impossibility of eradicating Covid, every winter could usher in the reintroduction of ‘modest restrictions’. But remember, those restrictions are only modest when you compare them to lockdowns – and they require a stronger justification than ‘better to be safe than sorry’ or ‘100 people are perishing every day’.

And they’re only modest when cost-benefit analyses ignore the costs and inflate the benefits. Government diktats erode business confidence, leading to closures, job losses and lost income. They harm other people who stop receiving the care they need. They damage mental health and wellbeing.

The WHO and Coronavirus experts are increasingly convinced the new variant is ‘super mild’ and has, so far, not led to a jump in Covid death rates anywhere in southern Africa. That ‘vested indifference’ may only apply to a minority of Brits, but once combined with the uncomfortable truth that you can be as wrong as you like when you’re a Covid pessimist, you can see the temptation for politicians to take an excessively cautious approach. The response to Omicron – which is beginning to look unreasonably disproportionate – shows why they shouldn’t.

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Annabel Denham is Director of Communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.