Omicron has exposed a chink in the government’s armour: ideology

by Kieran Hurwood

At the beginning of the pandemic, the freshly re-elected British government led by Boris Johnson was widely perceived to have made the correct decision in locking down (though recent developments clearly raise questions regarding their sincerity). Today however – with the backdrop of Omicron – it seems that this pragmatism has been lost on a Conservative party hungry for its basest desires; the cabinet has regressed to tenuous arguments about freedom when discussing essential public health measures that could save lives. Though Omicron itself is not as dangerous as some academics have touted, the lack of seriousness with which this issue was treated by some ministers was disappointing and concerning, especially when considering how the government might deal with future variants.

Previously, the embrace of income support, increased benefits, and lockdown all represented breaks with traditional conservative ideology to protect lives. There have been some caveats though, including severe delays in the implementation of several key policies such as the ‘Test and Trace’ infrastructure, furlough support, and the provision of standardised travel regulations. There have also been proven instances of corruption at a high-level with the use of a ‘VIP lane’ during the pandemic for certain procurement companies with links to the Conservative party. While not every death could’ve been prevented, it is impossible to ignore the role of government policy delays in many of the 150,000 deaths caused by COVID-19 so far.

A year on from that last deadly wave of COVID-19 and our armoury is much more extensive. Early investments in vaccine research and effective use of the UK’s strongest asset – its universities – have dramatically transformed the battle against the disease. Despite infections skyrocketing in the last few weeks, deaths have not risen as much as in prior waves due to the successful deployment of proven treatments and the life-saving protection the vaccine provides. While the government’s record on pandemic preparedness and corruption in procurement should rightly be criticised, this policy of state-backed research should also be seen as going beyond the traditional ideological boundaries of UK politics to provide a maximally effective policy.

Despite this success, the most recent variant of COVID-19 – Omicron – initially caused much public concern when it reached the UK. Researchers were concerned at reports from South Africa that it was far more transmissible, and that current vaccines could be less effective at preventing serious complications. As a result, the UK government (in charge of regulations for England only) encountered a significant schism regarding the decision on implementing restrictions. Ministers vying to succeed Boris Johnson such as Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss argued that implementing a short post-Christmas lockdown would be an overreaction. They believed this fit the mood of both MPs and the public, while others such as Michael Gove, with little interest in public opinion, favoured a more cautious approach with some restrictions being implemented. Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary for Education, was adamant that schools reopen as scheduled after Christmas, leading him and several other ministers to resist restrictions. This whole affair took place with the backdrop of press revelations that various officials and civil servants, including the PM himself, had held several parties at 10 Downing Street during lockdown throughout 2020. Sensing political danger, Johnson eventually favoured the majority position in the cabinet, which was the rejection of any new restrictions in England.

While we are still waiting to see the full effects of the English government’s decision to do nothing but give public health advice, it does seem as though the academic community’s worst fears haven’t quite been realised with Omicron. Rather than an unstoppable rise, we are seeing a slow but steady reduction in case rates, as well as a consistent drop in the number of deaths and hospitalisations. This could partially be due to public self-adjustment over the Christmas period, but also reflects the success of the UK’s vaccine program in providing widespread protection from the virus. Hospitals could still be overwhelmed with the number of admissions in the future, but the important thing remains: the chance of admittance to ICU and subsequent death has been substantially reduced.

However, despite this particular bet paying off, there remains a significant risk that the government’s libertarian tendency, if repeated, could have dire consequences. Despite the government’s insistence, there was no guarantee that Omicron was less severe, nor that our vaccines would be as effective against it as it was with prior variants. In this, Omicron exposed a significant chink in the British state’s armour against the pandemic. The prior policies of the government were deeply pragmatic: ministers explicitly stated such policies juxtaposed their usual ideological positions and that, without embracing them, disaster would ensue. Unfortunately, under the impression that the public is now exhausted of restrictions, this government has become complacent in its willingness to take decisive action. Those who favoured a more cautious approach in the press, the academic community, and indeed in government were correct from an epidemiological perspective. To be blunt, there was a risk taken by the government with Omicron that we could’ve been catapulted into another lengthy lockdown if the low-risk bet failed, resulting in significant social and economic disruption.

My point is plain: the government mustn’t stall in future when it comes to implementing short-term restrictions on variants of concern. They must continue to embrace pragmatic policies during periods of uncertainty and ensure that variants with the potential to undermine our extensive progress so far are treated with the utmost severity. They must never again be used as an opportunity to score brownie points with the Conservative party’s libertarian base as they seem to have been with Omicron. Failure to take a cautious approach in such uncertain situations risks the integrity of our health systems, our social lives, and our economic well-being.

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