On the issue of lockdown, the Prime Minister’s hands are tied by a rope with three strands. The first strand is the cabinet in general and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak in particular.
One of Sunak’s allies recently suggested to me that the first thing Boris Johnson would have to do to implement another lockdown is “get a new chancellor”. The inflationary pressures across the world validate Sunak’s warnings that the era of central bank independence does not guarantee that ultra-low interest rates will last forever. He is minded to resist anything that would bring back the furlough scheme and other lockdown support measures.
Another cabinet minister likens the prospect of obtaining public consent for a lockdown without the furlough scheme to persuading a patient to consent to “surgery without anaesthetic”. That political reality means that, while the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could, if they wished, compel lockdowns and other restrictions, there is in practice a limit on how far they can go: the British Treasury ultimately controls the economic support available to businesses and households across the UK.
One thing that preys on the mind of some cabinet ministers is the knowledge that, whatever the instincts of the Prime Minister, the parliamentary party as a whole is not keen on further lockdowns. And so Tory MPs make up the second strand of the cord. They are increasingly unhappy at the prospect of locking down again and are even wary of more limited interventions. Although with Labour support there is a large majority in parliament for toughened rules on mask-wearing and even for more lockdowns, so far in the pandemic Boris Johnson has opted to retreat when his agenda cannot command a majority of Conservative MPs.
There are many reasons why opposition to lockdown is strong on the Tory benches. Some are concerned about the potential economic cost, whether it is in stoking inflation later or in doing further damage to pandemic-stricken sectors such as aviation. Others are worried by the social costs of confining people to their homes. One Conservative compares lockdowns to amputation – as a medical measure, it can work, but it is not a course of action without sacrifices.
The third strand is public opinion, and what would happen to the Conservative Party’s prospects if Johnson shuttered the country again. Although the government’s own focus groups consistently show what one libertarian Tory gloomily described as “alarmingly high” levels of support for more draconian measures, many ministers simply don’t believe the polls. They argue that, by the end of the last national lockdown, observance was visibly fraying, and measures such as the “rule of six” or allowing people to dine in restaurants but only with members of their household were being widely ignored. Another minister comments that, in the event of a new lockdown, “20 per cent of the country won’t do it and 20 per cent of the country will bend the rules beyond all use”, while “the remaining 60 per cent will go into lockdown but they won’t forgive us”. Other Conservatives believe that, given how loudly the government has trumpeted its success in rolling out vaccines, ordering people to stay at home again would be a betrayal that voters won’t forget.
The emergence of the Omicron variant is a shock in part because it weakens every strand of the rope. The Prime Minister and the cabinet were reluctant to sanction a lockdown last winter. What ultimately broke their resistance was the rising number of hospitalisations and the possibility that the NHS would collapse. While the impact of Omicron on hospitalisation rates is not yet clear, its emergence reminds us of new variants’ propensity to disrupt the UK’s management of Covid-19. Just as the parliamentary party proved unwilling to allow the NHS to crumble last winter, the public is perhaps more likely to accept another lockdown if it is the result of a mutation, which is not entirely within the British government’s control.
While wealthy nations have been able to disperse vaccines to their populations, in the rest of the world Covid-19 has raged more freely, which has allowed the disease to mutate. We have seen infectious diseases decline more slowly in the Global South before, in the cases of polio, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids. The difference here is that allowing the pandemic to continue to ravage poorer countries could render the rich world’s Covid-19 defences redundant. The UK has some responsibility to provide vaccines to developing nations, but no one in the Conservative Party expects voters to blame them if this is not enough to prevent future mutations.
So, while not yet broken, the rope restraining the government from imposing another lockdown has been frayed by the emergence of a new variant first identified in South Africa. More importantly, it has reminded the government that its pandemic defences of vaccination, treatment and testing may not be impregnable.
Whether it is Omicron, Pi, Rho or Sigma, the rich world’s approach – taming the disease with vaccines at home but allowing it to spread abroad – has been shown to be highly unstable. A new settlement will have to be found if the world is truly to move past the age of lockdowns.
This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back