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21 December 2021

Even without a lockdown, Omicron is already hammering businesses

The debate over whether or not to have an official lockdown risks distracting from the real problems on the ground.

By Stephen Bush

Global shortages have hit Morning Call! After so many identical non-announcements, I have run out of wry gags about the Prime Minister standing up and saying nothing of circumstance. Supplies of “stop me if you’ve heard this one before” are at record lows due to a glut of end-of-the-year musical round-ups, while reserves of “Déjà vu all over again” have been pressed into service for people making small talk while queuing for their booster shot. 

Anyway, the cabinet met yesterday, talked for two hours about the current situation, and decided to do nothing about it. Why so long? Former Downing Street aide Nikki da Costa made a smart point on Twitter: Boris Johnson dislikes overlong meetings, but understands that he needs to show the cabinet that he is listening to them. Given that it is not really a policy question that requires a two-hour debate at cabinet – whatever you think of the decision to avoid further restrictions – that seems about right, personally. (Not least because as one minister pointed out to me, the meeting had reached a conclusion long before everyone stopped talking.)

Of course, that need to show the cabinet they are listened to and valued is closely connected to the reason why there was never any prospect of a fresh lockdown being signed off yesterday: Johnson simply doesn’t have the political capital at the moment to get another lockdown past his cabinet, his parliamentary party and, possibly, the country either.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s woes make another lockdown unlikely]

The debate about whether or not to have a government-sanctioned lockdown risks distracting from the real problems on the ground. Ultimately, the gamble that the Conservatives are taking on Omicron is that the protection afforded by inoculations means that healthcare capacity can weather a very high number of coronavirus cases. If they’re right, they’re right; if they’re wrong, the moment may well have passed to stop it.

But what we can say with certainty is that parts of the country are locking down already. Theatres, pubs, shops and restaurants are shutting their doors early, in part because they are experiencing staff shortages due to self-isolation requirements, but the bigger contributor is that they aren’t getting enough people through the door. Now, that may be because people are trying to save their Christmas plans rather than because people fear getting Omicron, but regardless: Christmas is a hugely important month in the lives of theatres, shops, restaurants and pubs. For many small theatres, the loss of a large chunk of their pantomime season is an existential threat to their ability to continue trading. For many pubs and restaurants, the loss of their Christmas party season is, likewise, a hammer blow.

It’s that problem that deserves a greater degree of attention and urgency: because while we can’t say for certain what the trajectory of the Omicron variant will be, we can have a horrid and unwelcome level of confidence about where so many industries are heading without further support.

[See also: Is Britain heading for a Christmas “lockdown by stealth”?]

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