The problem with television these days is it’s all just repeats: Boris Johnson used a televised address to urge everybody to get a third coronavirus jab in order to minimise the risk to healthcare capacity from the new Omicron variant.
What, might you wonder, was the practical difference between last night’s TV special and Wednesday’s (15 December) coronavirus announcements? Well, there is now a very big and impressive sounding number attached to the government’s target of daily booster jabs, which in practice means that more people will get a text asking them to get a booster a bit more quickly. Otherwise, the song remains the same: work from home if you can, get your booster jab booked.
We still don’t really know what the effect that Omicron will have on cases and, crucially, on NHS capacity. (For an informed analysis from South Africa, this Twitter thread from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Shabir Madh is worth your time.) What has changed is that the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar has revealed that Boris Johnson himself chaired a Christmas Zoom quiz last December in which some participants played inside No 10, in what would have been a clear breach of lockdown regulations.
Johnson has achieved a rare feat, uniting Labour and Conservative MPs, lockdown sceptics and Zero Covid-ers in the belief that last night’s statement was really about keeping Sunday’s Mirror story off today’s front pages.
Although this week’s set of coronavirus restrictions will pass no matter what thanks to Labour’s support (and government whips have further minimised the scale of the rebellion by splitting the issue into several votes), the most important change in Westminster is in the mood of the Conservative Party. Scepticism not only about lockdown but almost any non-pharmaceutical intervention is spreading and becoming the mainstream opinion within the parliamentary party, and the perception that the government is now making Omicron announcements in order to clear up the Prime Minister’s little local difficulties is only going to accelerate that trend. My impression from taking soundings last night is that this is also true of the party in the country.
Boris Johnson is safe as Prime Minister as long as a critical mass of Conservative MPs believe that he is their best electoral asset. A weekend of bad polls and growing chatter that the Conservatives are in serious trouble in North Shropshire haven’t changed that calculation yet, but it’s far from impossible that Johnson’s leadership has entered its terminal phase. One consequence of that will be a Conservative leadership election in which all the candidates, whatever their own beliefs about the issue, will have to trim their Covid-19 approach in order to win over a party electorate increasingly sceptical about any form of coronavirus restriction.