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5 January 2022

Why Boris Johnson has nothing new to offer on Omicron

The Prime Minister’s political weakness and the lack of time to halt the wave means any new restrictions would be theatre.

By Stephen Bush

Get boosted and work from home if you can: no, we haven’t published an old edition of this article by mistake, Boris Johnson really did give yet another press conference with no news and no announcements.

Part of the issue is simply political weakness: the Prime Minister couldn’t even return to distance-working in parliament without facing some level of eruption within the parliamentary Conservative Party.

But the other issue is time: England’s Omicron wave is baked in now due to the relatively meagre non-pharmaceutical interventions deployed before Christmas, with the only question being whether the double whammy of hospitalisations and self-isolating staff causes the NHS to fall over. So almost any new measure right now would be theatre, not least because no one seriously disputes that the UK’s official case number of 200,000 is an underestimate.

But one potentially damaging bit of theatre is the requirement that 100,000 key workers test daily. Given how widespread Omicron is, it seems unlikely that daily testing won’t result in large numbers of asymptomatic positives, and therefore large numbers of people – whether they work in supply chains, schools or the NHS – having to self-isolate.

In practice, what is actually happening in many workplaces is that asymptomatic positives aren’t self-isolating: they are being quietly urged by their employers (whether their employers be haulage companies, schools or primary care trusts) to just ignore their positive test and come into work anyway.

England’s response to the pandemic started with households and businesses essentially ignoring official advice and adopting stay-at-home measures before they were legally required to do so: with households emulating Italy weeks before the government did. It may well be ending with households and businesses essentially ignoring official advice and adopting a more lenient approach to asymptomatic positives than they are supposed to by law: with businesses emulating the recent South African approach before the government does.

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[See also: Is the government simply hoping for the best on Omicron?]

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