Mask-wearing will once again become compulsory on public transport and in shops in England, as the government seeks to curb the transmission of the variant formerly known as “Nu”. Cases of the Omicron variant (the World Health Organisation has skipped two Greek letters: “Nu” because it sounds like “new”, and “Xi” because it is a common family name) have been detected in England and Scotland, but two of the cases in Scotland are particularly alarming as they suggest that community transmission is already taking place.
Does it mean another lockdown is on the way? Ministers insist that it doesn’t: that “Christmas will be saved,” etc, etc. And we still don’t know very much about Omicron and what impact it will have on the rate of hospitalisations and deaths.
One minister told me recently that another lockdown would have to pass through a “triple lock”. The first is the fear of what it would do to the Conservative Party’s electoral standing if it had to do another lockdown; the second would be the mood in the cabinet and the Treasury’s willingness to pay for it; the third would be getting a majority for another lockdown in the House of Commons.
A new variant may mean that the first hurdle – that of surviving another lockdown politically – is easier to surmount. But another lockdown would have to mean a further round of financial support, something that the cabinet in general, and the Chancellor in particular, is reluctant to provide.
Without those measures in place, it would be unlikely, I think, that opposition support for another lockdown in the House of Commons would be forthcoming – and it is difficult to see how another lockdown could pass solely on Tory votes, given the depth of opposition to another one in parts of the party.
More troubling is how few lessons we have learnt in the past two years. The Health and Safety Executive’s guidance to business still includes plenty about cleaning surfaces (a measure about as helpful in preventing the spread of Covid-19 as wishing) but little about ventilation. The number of public buildings that have become ventilated in that time can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
And as the FT reports this morning (29 November), the vaccine manufacturing centre, a flagship British government project to enable the UK to expedite the swift production of jabs of all kinds, is being put up for sale.
The Omicron variant is in part a product of the global failure by the rich world to learn the predictable lessons that an uncontrolled pandemic in poorer nations has a direct cost for the rich world. But the United Kingdom’s limited toolkit of ways to respond to new mutations quickly is the product of failures to draw simple and easy lessons closer to home.