A year ago, with England 10 days into its second national lockdown, Boris Johnson was still publicly insisting that Christmas would be as “normal” as possible. In the end, 18 million people were put into lockdown over Christmas as Covid-19 ripped through the population again, with particularly high rates in London and the south-east.
This time, Johnson is being asked similar questions but sounding more cautious than he did last year or even last month. Should we be any more inclined to believe him?
At a press conference in Downing Street, Johnson urged the public to take up the offer of vaccines, as the UK seeks to roll out booster shots, making the top-up injections available to the over-40s. The Prime Minister warned of the risks from a surge in coronavirus cases in Europe.
“Our friends on the continent have been forced to respond with various degrees of new restrictions, from full lockdowns to lockdowns for the unvaccinated [in Austria], to restrictions on business opening hours and restrictions on social gatherings,” Johnson said. “We don’t yet know the extent to which this new wave will wash up on our shores but history shows we cannot afford to be complacent.”
When he was asked if he could rule out another lockdown this Christmas, Johnson said he could not “rule anything out.” Even though current infection rates don’t suggest new restrictions are needed, case numbers have been rising in the UK in recent days, Johnson said.
If infections were to threaten to overwhelm the NHS again, the government would first trigger its plan B – stronger measures to contain the spread of the disease, including mandatory facemasks, vaccine passports and working from home if possible. Only if those steps fail would tougher action including lockdowns become more likely.
Latest NHS numbers show there were 269,802 positive cases in the past 7 days, a 12.5 per cent increase over the previous week. The rate per 100,000 people is now 364.6 positive cases. The better news is that hospitalisation and death rates have both fallen in the past week, though they may rise again as cases increase.
Why is Johnson sounding more cautious about Christmas? After making many over-optimistic declarations last year, he may be keen to avoid promising too much and then disappointing the public again. That would be in keeping with his phased approach to ending lockdown measures as vaccines were rolled out earlier this year.
The second reason for a cautious message is the vaccination effort itself. In order to protect the health service and avoid the need for more restrictions, the UK’s immunity levels must be maintained.
So far, 80 per cent of people aged 12 and over have received two doses of the vaccine, with 22 per cent having had a third “booster” dose. Those boosters are vital, as the effectiveness of the vaccine wears off over time.
Talking up the risk of a new Christmas lockdown – however distant a prospect that might really be – could persuade more people to come forward to get jabbed. “If we want to avoid new restrictions on our daily lives, we must all get vaccinated as soon as we are eligible,” Johnson said.
With polls showing the Tories suffering from allegations of sleaze, a covid surge forcing a Christmas lockdown is the last thing Johnson needs.