On 8 November, Boris Johnson visited Hexham hospital in Northumberland and, according to reports at the time, ignored requests from medical staff to wear a face mask while meeting nurses. As the Prime Minister now grapples with a resurgent threat from a new variant of Covid-19, this earlier episode reveals two important truths about his approach to the pandemic.
First, it confirms Mr Johnson’s apparent addiction to subverting established rules – a libertarian tendency that has won him plenty of admirers on the right during his career, but which is dangerous during a public health emergency. Second, it dramatises his government’s strange reluctance to listen to the people on the front line. With the alarming new Omicron variant of coronavirus now threatening the NHS this winter, these are two habits that Mr Johnson and his government urgently need to break.
In response to the emergence of the variant, the Prime Minister has made face masks compulsory again on public transport and in shops. Coverings are also strongly advised for secondary schools in England, where pupils are expected to put them on in corridors and other communal areas. But hospitality venues – restaurants, bars, cafés, nightclubs – remain exempt. This makes little sense when these are among the most crowded and least ventilated public spaces. The government says it is keen to strike the right balance between “protecting lives and livelihoods”, yet it offers no public health justification for why masks should be worn in schools but not in pubs.
If the variant is, as feared by some, both highly transmissible and able to evade vaccines, the effectiveness of social restrictions will be vital to limiting deaths and holding off another lockdown. It is therefore concerning that, once again, Mr Johnson’s lack of discipline in his messaging seems to have spread across Whitehall, creating space for public confusion and potentially dangerous misinformation to take hold.
On 30 November, Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, told the public not to socialise when it isn’t necessary. She was swiftly contradicted by No 10. Clarity about the rules is proving to be the first casualty of a worsening pandemic. The second will be the people who are most vulnerable to the disease and those with the most to lose from another lockdown.
The charity Blood Cancer UK reports that the proportion of people in intensive care with Covid who are immunocompromised has risen from one in 30 earlier in the pandemic to one in 20 since May. These patients must be prioritised for booster jabs and drugs but, while medics understand this, the message has not been received by those in charge. In schools, there is a different problem. Teachers’ unions were among the most vocal opponents of reopening classrooms earlier this year. Union leaders warned Mr Johnson that it would be “reckless” to allow all children back to school in March. Rightly, he ignored them, but then failed to provide adequate funding for catch-up provision.
The damage the pandemic has done to children’s education and mental health is hard to calculate. Teachers in the classrooms (as distinct from the vested interests of the unions) have reported a silent epidemic of low morale and poor motivation among pupils. According to House of Commons research, most studies suggest that the mental health of under-18s has worsened during the pandemic, particularly in lockdowns, as a result of social isolation and school closures. In May, referrals to child mental health services in England reached a record high.
The suspicion is that the inconsistent new rules on face masks reveal a government more concerned with protecting businesses than education, believing that this will be the best way to safeguard the economy. But children will be the economic units of the future and there is no shortcut to preparing them for adult life.
There is still hope that the Omicron variant could prove to be milder than feared, potentially making the pandemic less dangerous. But if the worst does happen, the government must learn from its mistakes, listen to voices from the front line, and not leave the most vulnerable to pay the price.
This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back