Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Health
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.

Content from our partners
How automation can help insurers keep pace with customer demand
How telecoms companies can unlock their growth potential through automation
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better

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.

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

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Topics in this article: ,