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9 December 2021

We might be heading for a Christmas more painful than Allegra Stratton’s last 24 hours

This spontaneous lockdown won't be accompanied by the economic support package that accompanied previous legal lockdowns

By Stephen Bush

Good morning. What a 24 hours Boris Johnson has had. He’s accepted the resignation of Allegra Stratton and introduced a series of new restrictions in England in a bid to suppress the number of stories about Downing Street lockdown breaches and to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.   How’s that working out for him? The Times reports that as many as seven illicit parties may have been held, and that Conservative aides held a “raucous” party, at which revellers damaged a door and Shaun Bailey, the guest of honour, was given a Lego set. (Sounds a bit like my eighth birthday party.) The FT’s Laura Hughes has unearthed further details of the 18 December event, with one source revealing: “it was huge, there must have been 40 to 50 people. It was really bad. There was cheese and wine ordered in by No 10 staff. There was music.” And the winner of today’s “least sympathetic quote award” goes to Luke McGee over at CNN, who has unearthed this beauty from a Downing Street source: “To us, Downing Street was an island where we had to work and lockdown wasn’t happening in the same way it was for the rest of the country.”  

Far from bringing the story to a close, Stratton’s exit raises more questions than it answers. So someone who joked about not attending a party has resigned – but no one who actually attended one of these parties has.   What about the more important matter: those new measures to curb the spread of the Omicron variant? Those who can will be told to work from home from Monday (13 December), though schools will remain open. Anyone attending a large event will have to provide proof either that they have been double-jabbed or of a negative lateral flow test, while mask-wearing will be mandatory at most indoor events. But office Christmas parties, nativities, and social gatherings can still go ahead.  

These are all measures that have long been in place in Wales and Scotland, and while they have slowed the growth of cases, their effectiveness against Omicron is less clear. There are two worrying clouds on the horizon. The first is epidemiological: what happens if these measures aren’t enough? It’s hard to see how the government would avoid getting into very difficult political waters if it decided to impose another proper lockdown.  

The second is economic: what happens if most people see the new guidance and decide to go further? Don’t forget that well before the United Kingdom had officially locked down, the retail and hospitality sectors were under growing financial pressure due to cancelled events and empty tables. We might be heading for a very painful Christmas: a spontaneous lockdown from below with damaging consequences for businesses, but without the economic support package that accompanied previous legal lockdowns.  

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