4th December 2021
Keep calm and carry on says the British government
As the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus begins its inexorable journey around the globe the British government insists upon taking up its usual pandemic position of being just behind the curve. While public health and World Health Organisation (WHO) advice at every stage of the pandemic has been to take hard measures quickly and early, to contain infection spread, the British government continues to adopt an attitude of ‘let’s see how much longer we can spend down the pub’.
Such an approach is fuelled by a beleaguered hospitality sector, less concerned with getting jabs in arms than getting arms pulling pints, and the usual trio of Tory cheerleaders in the right wing press, the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph.
Keen to undermine the evidence that Omicron is highly transmissible and socially mixing will only accelerate the spread, the Tory press trio are more concerned to demonise the so called ‘cancel Christmas’ brigade. The message is wrapped in the usual phoney rhetoric of plucky Brits seeing it through, with a liberal draping of Union Jack iconography, just in case the message is not clear that the ‘cancel Christmas’ crowd are not real patriots and are simply out to undermine British tradition.
As more cases of the Omicron variant are identified, the government is pinning its hopes on an acceleration of the vaccine booster programme which it hopes will “buy the time” needed to further assess the impact of the Omicron variant.
British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said everyone who is eligible will be offered a booster jab by the end of January. The government is hoping this, coupled with new mask measures and restrictions on travel from countries in southern Africa, will be enough to contain the variant.
Minutes from the Sage Advisory Group have suggested that there is a danger of the government “putting all its eggs in one basket” by relying on the booster programme without taking any measures to reduce social mixing. In particular it has been suggested that working from home would be a minimum measure that could enhance infection control with one adviser stating,
“Working from home is substantially less intrusive as an intervention. If you can easily do your job from home until Christmas, to me that seems a very proportionate thing to do right now.”
The government position however remains to sideline such advice and adopt a “keep calm and carry on” approach, a phrase actually used by Conservative Party Chairman, Oliver Dowden, when asked about private parties at No 10 Downing St this year. Dowden insisted that people should,
“…keep calm and carry on with your Christmas plans. We’ve put the necessary restrictions in place but beyond that keep calm and carry on.”
Downing St is already on the defensive, having been found to be the venue for parties during lockdown last November, once again exposing the government’s one rule for them and another for the rest, approach to the pandemic.
The Tories’ position is at odds with that of Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency who made clear on BBC Radio 4 that,
“Of course our behaviours in winter – and particularly around Christmas – we tend to socialise more, so I think all of those will need to be taken into account. So I think we need to be careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to, and particularly going and getting those booster jabs.”
Concerns about the capacity of GPs and the NHS to step up the rate of vaccination to deliver the booster programme are also very real with services already struggling to cope due to reduced capacity. The NHS has announced it would need an army of 10,000 volunteers and 1,500 new sites to help offer the required 25m vaccines over the next two months.
Prof Andrew Hayward, co-director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said,
“I am concerned that the intensification of mixing at Christmas social events will provide a boost to transmission at just the time when the Omicron variant will probably be picking up speed, potentially leading to an earlier peak in the new year before we have an opportunity to counteract this through boosters. Such a peak could seriously affect the ability of an already struggling NHS to provide adequate care.”
The determination to put private wealth ahead of public health has been the only consistent position taken by the British government throughout the pandemic, allied with the desire not to take any decisions which may prove unpopular.
With the UK death rate now past the 145,000 mark and daily infections in their thousands, the government is once again taking a massive gamble with the lives of those who are most vulnerable and have least capacity to fight off infection, in spite of the vaccination programme.
The government may not be brave enough to take any decisions which could be characterised as ‘cancelling Christmas’, leaving most to have to take the decision themselves when deciding just what level of celebration is safe.