Will the Government’s Omi-Gamble Pay Off?
The government’s response to Omicron is – for most of the scientific advisors PoliticsHome has spoken to – a gamble.
For months scientists have been warning the biggest threat to the UK’s path out of lockdown was an “escape variant” - a dominant strain of coronavirus which can evade the immunity established through vaccines and previous infections. Now the threat of one is here, the government has held off from moving to its “Plan B” measures in favour of a wait-and-see approach.
Downing Street said the precautions announced last weekend, with a return to mask mandates in shops and public transport, as well as a travel ‘red list’ and PCR testing for travellers, are “proportionate and targeted”. One minister told PoliticsHome that the government is responding to lessons it has learned throughout the pandemic, and there is no current need for more restrictions.
But that’s not the view of advisers to its own Sage committee on Covid, who say they should be going further now, and not gambling that Omicron won’t end up as bad as first feared. On Friday night Ireland took action, shutting nightclubs, reducing capacity at indoor events, and bringing back table service in hospitality settings.
Professor Charles Bangham from Imperial College London said: “The prudent thing at the moment is to take precautionary measures while we wait for the evidence to accumulate”.
He told PoliticsHome: “there's now more than ample evidence of which of the measures that are really effective”, saying while masks help, “the main thing that minimises the spread is reducing the frequency of person to person contact.”
Bangham, who sits on the main Sage committee, criticised the government for suggesting there would not need to be further restrictions ahead of Christmas.
“I think my own view is that it would be certainly unwise to promise that at the moment, and almost certainly unwise to have complete carte blanche on restrictions, even if we know that the Omicron variant is not so different from Delta,” he said.
“I think that would be unwise, simply because it's already been demonstrated that until a higher proportion of the population is vaccinated Covid-19 still has ample potential to spread.”
That view is echoed by an adviser to Sage’s sub-committee on behaviour science, who told PoliticsHome: “Recall that, even before Omicron, nearly every major medical body - the BMA, NHS Federation, several regional directors of Public Health, several Presidents of Royal Colleges - of Emergency Medicine, of Obstetrics and Gynaecology – even Macmillan Cancer Foundation, along with Sage, called for action against existing high rates of infection, hospitalisation and death.
“Government announcements with Omicron don’t go as far as they have already suggested.”
Deenan Pillay, professor of virology at UCL and director of the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, said the “obvious thing” was to strengthen social distancing until there was more data.
“But instead we have a really risky strategy, which seems to be driven by backbenchers and financial constraints,” he said.
Pillay, who also chairs Independent Sage, said lessons had not been learned from last winter, when we found out “acting too late, is a real risk for causing deaths”, adding: “And therefore, the idea that we wait rather than becoming a bit stricter now, by which time of course Omicron will have spread, it will lead to hospitalisations and it will be too late and government will be forced into cancelling Christmas at the last minute again.”
But the government disagrees, one minister saying such speculation “just doesn't help anybody, and creates further uncertainty.”
“We've learned lessons from trying to chase the virus this time last year, and it doesn't work, all the stop-start stuff,” they told PoliticsHome.
“It did help contain the virus somewhat but there are other effective ways of doing it, not least now with the vaccination and the booster programmes.
“We’re in a different place anyway this year, so we can react in a very different way, and what we're doing is proportionate.”
But on whether saving Christmas from restrictions was a factor, the minister added: “I think it's fair to say it's on our mind.
“I think obviously we would act if the data was suggesting we need to act, but clearly we don't want to go off too heavily when there's no evidence and risk Christmas.”
After last year’s debacle Boris Johnson has repeatedly set expectations higher for this holiday season, saying again and again this week: “I am confident this Christmas will be significantly better than last Christmas."
Number 10 have also been dogmatic in their view that the guidance on social distancing is not being updated, for now at least.
But there is a gap between what the government has said we should be doing, and what people feel they should be doing, which in the week since the Prime Minister’s press conference on Omicron, his ministers are being asked to fill.
They have delivered somewhat mixed messaging, and reports continue to come in saying people are now cancelling the very things the government wanted to keep on track.
Beyond the debate on “snogging” under the mistletoe sparked by work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey, it was comments from the business minister George Freeman that really caught the eye, when he said his department will not be having a big Christmas party this year.
“Nobody would expect us to. My parliamentary team, I think we've agreed - probably given the new variant - we'll get together on Zoom and toast each other,” he said on Wednesday.
He was slapped down by Number 10, who also took a dim view of comments from Dr Jenny Harries, who said we should not be “socialising when we don’t particularly need to”.
A spokesman for the PM said “she gives advice to government, she doesn’t give government advice”, and the health secretary distanced himself from her words.
But that was criticised by Professor Pillay, who said: “Society is moving quicker than our politicians unfortunately, and it's just sad that that actually quite a mild statement by Jenny Harries to say that we should be more careful about meeting people, has been slapped down whereas in fact, what politicians should be saying is ‘yes, we need to be much more careful’.
“I heard Sajid Javid say ‘well, Jenny Harries is advising the government’: that is absolute bollocks.
“The UK health security agency in the new law that was passed is an executive arm of the Department of Health.
“It is the government, it's not an external advisor, this is someone right in the heart of government.”
Harries’ comments have been interpreted as a hint at what the government is planning if the data on Omicron is worse than feared, with senior Conservative MP and ex-health minister Steve Brine pointing out she is “a very careful and very professional public servant” who does not “just say things off the cuff without thinking”.
Her comments were also echoed by Sage member Professor Paul Moss, who said on socialising “it’s very reasonable not to put oneself in a place of unnecessary exposure”.
But another scientific adviser said the government should have “held its nerve” and not introduced any new measures until they got more evidence, saying that travel restrictions are pointless as the virus is already here, and the mask rules have kicked off a wave of “over-caution”.
“The Brits are doing as the Brits always do - gold-plating government advice,” they said.
"Once you set the hare running it rapidly starts swerving back and forth across the meadow and evading your efforts to track it down.”
In amongst this the big unknown is Omicron, and despite a frenzied week of speculation, the world is still in the dark as to how transmissible, how virulent and how much this variant can get past the defences built up through the vaccines and natural immunity.
The government is hoping a kick-started booster programme, and early signals the variant may only cause mild symptoms, will allow them to deliver the Christmas they have promised.
Additional reporting by Kate Proctor.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe