Understanding the latest wave of infections of Covid-19 in Britain is very hard. Data collection has been messed up by the holiday season, and anyway this wave, driven by the Omicron variant, is presenting in a different way to earlier ones, meaning the statistics don’t quite mean the same thing as before. Politically the most interesting thing, though, is the “don’t panic” attitude of the government’s policy in England, compared to what has been happening in Scotland and Wales. It is a gamble.
This gamblers based on a number of ideas. First is that the Omicron variant causes less serious harm than earlier ones, and that this is reinforced by more widespread vaccination, including third jabs, or “boosters”. The thought seems to be that scary infection rates won’t cause hospitals and other health services to be overwhelmed, and that the wave will burn out quickly and subside rapidly, reducing its impact on daily life. However this assessment seems to be as much driven by politics within the Conservative Party, as a sober assessment of what is known about the virus. For reasons that aren’t very clear to me, the Brexit awkward squad has decided that scepticism of the conventional, cautious approach to fighting the virus is the next Big Idea. Many business lobbies seem to have joined in, especially those in the hospitality and travel, after a frustrating two years, with recovery repeatedly postponed. The evidence and logic backing up these sceptics is weak at best – it is mainly a question of clutching at straws and finding out flaws in the logic of the advocates of caution. Funnily enough, though this scepticism is very prominent, even dominant, in the ruling party, it does not seem to be widely shared by the public, who usually find the government scientists more convincing. It is significant that the Scottish and Welsh governments (respectively led by the SNP and Labour) are taking a more cautious line.
So far it is very hard to tell who is right. Hospital admissions of people with Covid are going up, but not as fast as infections. Moreover it is not clear how many of these admissions are of people seriously ill with Covid, as opposed to being ill with something else, and also happening to be infected. A bigger source of stress seems to be staff being infected and having to stay away from work in isolation. Are things better in Scotland and Wales than in England? The statistics are very patchy; they do seem to be doing better, but that may be because Omicron hit them later (especially Wales). But if the government has got it wrong in England, it is too late to do anything about it. We could be in for two or three weeks of stories of overloaded hospitals and ambulances waiting outside unable to discharge their patients – and extra deaths, from Covid or not, as a result.
I find the sceptics generally unconvincing, and yet they aren’t wholly wrong. Stopping the virus is an impossibility – we have to have an end-game which involves us living with the virus, as we do with the common cold and flu. Vaccination is clearly part of that; other public health precautions may also have to become a permanent feature of life. We might need to adopt East Asian attitudes to the wearing of face masks. Ventilation standards need attention. Something else probably has a role too: waiting for the virus to evolve so that it comes less virulent, even as it becomes more infectious. Omicron seems to be a major step in that direction – which is why the government’s gamble may yet pay off.
And if it does, that will be a personal triumph for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, which will bolster his position within his party, if not the country at large. Another possibility is that things go badly, but turn out to be no better in Scotland and Wales, in spite of their extra precautions. That would prove the contention made by lobbyists that hospitality venues present minimal risk, and that restrictions are simply rounding up the usual suspects for appearances sake.
But most likely is that the evidence will be muddled, without proving either side right until many months later, when the debate has moved on. Such is life in the era of Covid. Happy New Year!