They say history doesn’t echo but it rhymes, which makes the Decembers of 2020 and 2021 a pretty neat couplet. Be grateful for small mercies: this year it looks pretty unlikely the Government will have to ‘cancel Christmas’ – although the hospitality industry is already feeling the chill effects of Omicron fear.
A lack of knowledge about the new variant has done little to abate the usual mixture of speculation, doom-mongering and wishful thinking. Depending on your inclination, Omicron could either be a vaccine-busting mega-strain, or the beginning of the end of the pandemic. The former, because it seems to spread rapidly, the latter because it seems to produce only mild symptoms, which would make it an ideal candidate for an endemic, less deadly version of the disease.
The Government is at least reflecting the lack of certainty with a set of half-measures that seem aimed more at signalling intent than stopping the new variant in its tracks. So we have mask mandates for shops and public transport, but not pubs or restaurants. Nigeria will soon join the ‘red list’ and, despite ministers having ruled them out a few days ago, all new arrivals in the UK must now take a ‘pre-departure’ Covid test. Then there’s the mixed messaging about kissing under the mistletoe: the Health Secretary remains in favour, over at Work and Pensions they’re not so sure.
One of the strangest analyses of the Omicron moment comes from an unnamed Cabinet minister in The Times, who says the return of Covid politics is ‘stronger ground for us. It should put us in a good place for the new year’. While undoubtedly cynical, what’s really striking about that line is how short-termist it is. Yes, a focus on Omicron might temporarily distract from headlines about sleaze, second jobs and so on, but any Tories hoping for a Covid reprieve should be very, very careful what they wish for.
As I wrote after October’s Budget, Rishi Sunak’s tax and spend plans are predicated on an optimistic growth scenario. The fact his team is floating a cut to VAT or income tax later in the Parliament suggests a textbook pre-election tax sweetener is still very much the plan, but how generous it would be depends on those growth numbers holding up. Throw in another Covid slump (if not a full-blown recession) and he may well be back at the drawing board.
It’s not just about the economy either. While few expect a January-style wave of hospitalisations in a population as heroically vaccinated as ours, the NHS’ knackered workforce is already struggling to deal with the aftershocks of the previous waves – it can ill afford even a modest increase in Covid admissions.
So, while we shouldn’t get too swept up in the gloomy prognoses that some commentators seem to weirdly relish, if I were in government I’d want to be as far away as possible from the ‘stronger ground’ of yet more Covid.