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12 December 2021

Beleaguered Johnson rolls out boosters for all adults by New Year

The Prime Minister warns two vaccine doses won't work against the Omicron "tidal wave" as military planners are brought in.

By Tim Ross

The UK is about to be hit by a “tidal wave” of coronavirus cases in the coming days and weeks and everyone must now urgently get a booster vaccine by New Year’s Eve.

That’s the stark message from Boris Johnson, issued in a statement to the nation on Sunday night in which he warned the country is facing an “emergency” in its battle against the Omicron variant.

The question is whether Johnson’s approach – urging the public to do the right thing rather than imposing tougher requirements on people to act – will be enough to keep the NHS operating effectively while avoiding another lockdown that would wreck the economy.

The risk is that the messenger himself is now so discredited by allegations of lying and sleaze that people simply ignore what he says.

About 50 military planning teams will be sent to every region of the country and thousands of volunteers will be recruited to administer jabs in a huge effort to roll out booster shots, prevent the NHS being overwhelmed and avert another lockdown.

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Originally, ministers aimed to offer a booster third dose of Covid-19 vaccines to all over-18s in England by the end of January but this target is now being moved forward to the end of December, Johnson said. This will require “an enormous effort,” he said, and some NHS appointments will need to be postponed.

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According to the government’s latest vaccine data, 46.7 million people had received two shots of Covid vaccines by 11 December, that’s 81% of the population aged 12 and older. Half that number – 23.1 million people – had been given a booster or third dose by 11 December. Another 530,000 people were recorded as receiving vaccines on Saturday.

Johnson’s warning reflects data showing the overwhelming speed of transmission of the new variant – infections are doubling every two or three days – and the emerging view from government scientists that Omicron evades some immunity provided by vaccines.

“I’m afraid it is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need,” Johnson said in his televised statement. “But the good news is that our scientists are confident that with a third dose – a booster dose – we can all bring our level of protection back up.”

This week, people in England are being told to work from home again and Covid passports are being introduced as a condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues in response to the surge in infections.

But Johnson himself is in a weakened position on his pandemic strategy, with his own credibility severely damaged by political opposition and a string of scandals. He faces a revolt from Conservative MPs this week, with scores of colleagues preparing to vote against the Covid pass requirement in the Commons. Tories are also anxious that schools should not be closed again, as the number shutting due to teacher absences grows.

The row over claims that Johnson’s staff held Covid rule-breaking parties in Downing Street last Christmas is also refusing to die down, with pictures emerging this weekend of the premier himself allegedly taking part in a festive quiz.

Against that backdrop, Labour have extended their lead over the Tories in opinion polls and Johnson’s own trust and approval ratings have slumped. The opposition leader, Keir Starmer, has suggested the prime minister should not remain in his post. While that is in some ways a predictable line for an opposition leader, it is a view that polls suggest most voters currently share. That could be a problem for the whole country, not just the Conservatives.

The scandals swirling around Johnson and his team have raised fears that an angry public will ignore his appeals to follow the new Plan B rules for England this week, potentially undermining the effectiveness of the national pandemic response.

[See also: Boris Johnson announces Covid “Plan B” rules for England as Omicron variant spreads]

The prime minister will inevitably face claims he is evading scrutiny by announcing the drive to “get boosted now” in a televised statement rather than at an event where he could be questioned, such as a press conference or a statement in Parliament.

He is betting that acting early to impose limited new restrictions will mean enough people are still willing to comply with his instructions to avoid a full lockdown later. If he’s wrong, and another national lockdown follows either at Christmas or in the New Year, Johnson’s position will be in peril. And whether he stays or goes, the country he leads will be in a Covid crisis again.

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