DAN HODGES: Omicron has thrust Boris into political purgatory. But it also gives him a route to redemption – and it’s one he has to take
The Tory grandee spoke candidly, if floridly. ‘Enough. It’s time to bring down the curtain. This farce is played out.’
A Minister was more earthy. ‘I’m sick of the whole thing. I love my job. But this can’t go on. I’m seriously thinking about jacking it all in.’
The Westminster pendulum has swung. A new conventional wisdom is forming: after the largest rebellion of his premiership, and the catastrophic loss in North Shropshire, Boris is finished.
‘He’ll probably be gone by May,’ one backbencher told me, a little too gleefully.
Wrong. Boris isn’t finished. At least, not yet. Two weeks ago, a by-election was held in Old Bexley and Sidcup. In the wake of the Owen Paterson and Peppa Pig farragos, it was widely expected the Tories would take a drubbing. They didn’t.
The Westminster pendulum has swung. A new conventional wisdom is forming: after the largest rebellion of his premiership, and the catastrophic loss in North Shropshire, Boris is finished
And talking to people, it was obvious why. ‘Boris has done his best. He’s looked after the country during Covid’ was the response I heard again and again on the doorsteps.
There used to be a popular political mantra that politicians and their advisers would chant to one other – ‘It’s the economy, stupid’.
It held that whatever other ephemera was swirling around, the economy was always the defining political issue. Not now. This morning, it’s Covid, stupid.
Omicron has derailed Boris. The parties when the nation was in lockdown. The lies about the parties. Then the national realisation that the surge of a new variant – and frantic new measures to neutralise its impact – could destroy Christmas for a second year running.
That’s certainly what motivated those Tory MPs who traipsed rebelliously through the lobbies last week. ‘If they think I’m voting for further restrictions, they’re mad,’ one told me. ‘That’s enough. We said we’d learn to live with Covid. Well, now’s the time.’
It’s also what motivated a large proportion of mutinous Tory voters in Shropshire. And why victorious Lib-Dem leader Sir Ed Davey ordered his MPs to oppose Covid passports, even though he was isolating with the disease himself.
But if the resurgent virus has thrust Boris into political purgatory, it also provides him with a possible route to redemption. If he opts to take it.
The first thing Boris has to do is demonstrate he’s sticking to his guns. Or rather, sticking to his road-map. For all the drama in the Commons last week, the new measures the Government announced were very limited in scope.
Whitty himself warned ‘there are several things we don’t know [about Omicron] but all the things we do know are bad’. According to reports, in a briefing to Cabinet he warned of the total collapse of NHS services as Omicron runs amok
As one official said: ‘A majority of the rebels were objecting from a position of libertarian principle, rather than reacting to the practical impacts of the new measures.’
Covid passports for a limited number of venues or proof of a negative Covid test, and mask-wearing, represented the extent of the restrictions. We are not back in lockdown, or anything that resembles it.
The second thing he needs to do is cut himself loose from the apron strings of his experts. Chris Whitty enjoys a cult-like following among those who advocate a more robust approach to tackling the new strain. And to be fair, he seems to be genuinely motivated by a desire to protect the public’s health.
But it’s no longer possible to ignore the glaring discrepancies in his and his colleagues’ analysis of the pandemic. Last week, UK Health Security chief Jenny Harries described Omicron as ‘probably the most significant threat’ we had faced since the start of the pandemic.
Whitty himself warned ‘there are several things we don’t know [about Omicron] but all the things we do know are bad’. According to reports, in a briefing to Cabinet he warned of the total collapse of NHS services as Omicron runs amok.
Yet, a few hours later, Whitty told the House of Commons Health Select Committee that in the fight against Covid ‘each six months will be better than the last six months… I think what will happen is the risks will gradually decrease over time’.
How is that compatible with the idea that two years into this crisis we are now facing our greatest moment of danger?
Chris Whitty enjoys a cult-like following among those who advocate a more robust approach to tackling the new strain. And to be fair, he seems to be genuinely motivated by a desire to protect the public’s health
Whitty’s defenders claim he is rightly erring on the side of caution. But the problem is this caution is now starting to resemble the cry of the boy who spotted the marauding wolf.
It’s only three months since he was warning Delta, which he chillingly described as a ‘very bad variant’, could lead to the triggering of the Government’s Plan B. Sage warned Delta could see 7,000 hospitalisations a day by October.
But until the emergency of Omicron, Delta was actually plateauing, and hospitalisations and deaths were falling. Boris’s decision to unlock – in the face of much of the ‘expert’ advice – was vindicated.
But, perhaps most concerning, was Whitty’s insistence it’s wrong to accept the body of evidence from South Africa that Omicron is more mild.
‘The amount of immunity in South Africa for this wave – because of a prior Delta wave and vaccination – is far higher than it was for their last wave. And therefore the fact there is a lower hospitalisation rate is unsurprising,’ he announced.
Up until now, the claim that exposure to the virus – and a reliance on natural immunity – would protect from hospitalisation has been the preserve of the anti-vaxxers.
Nor does it tally with the argument that rising infection and hospitalisation rates in London are a result of the capital’s relatively low rates of vaccination.
The reality is that, at this stage of the pandemic, it is no longer good enough for Boris and his Ministers – or, more pertinently, his most senior health officials – to push for restrictions based on what we don’t know.
The health impact of cancelled GP appointments, the dire economic fall-out, the sheer mental health burden of the unending Covid rollercoaster. All require an evidence-based approach, not a ‘better safe than sorry’ punt.
And there is one final reason why Boris has to stick with the strategy that saw him pledge in March that major Covid restrictions were being eased ‘once and for all’. There really is no other option.
We cannot, as a nation, drift into an endless cycle of temporary freedom followed by perennial lockdown. Enough is enough now.
We have done our bit. We have taken our jabs. We have taken our second jabs. According to one Government official I spoke to, by today 50 per cent of us will have had our boosters. And that was the deal Britain struck.
With Boris and his Ministers – and yes – with his experts. We would endure the lockdowns. We would put up with the circuit-breakers. We would all rally round to protect the NHS. Until the vaccine arrived. At which point, the NHS would go back to protecting us.
Well, it’s here now. And it doesn’t represent Plan A, it represents the only plan. If Boris sticks to it, then reports of his political demise will prove to have been premature. If he can show this time next year he really did guide the nation securely through its Covid nightmare, then the events of the past few days will be forgotten.
No one will care about Downing Street Zoom quizzes, or a temporary return to masks in the supermarket.
But if he breaks his pledge and we are plunged into another lockdown, or the NHS collapses despite his booster boosterism, then there will be nowhere to hide.
Because, for Boris, there is not really any Plan B. There is his road-map. Or there’s oblivion.
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