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15 December 2021updated 16 Dec 2021 3:00pm

The UK is facing the worst of all worlds on Covid-19

The Prime Minister is too weak to impose a formal lockdown but is leaving businesses to bear the costs of a voluntary one.

By Stephen Bush

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Boris Johnson has given a press conference in which he warned that while we do not know very much about Omicron, it appears to spread more quickly than previous variants, and that cases of the new mutation are rising. As a result, the government is urging everyone to get a third vaccine dose to minimise their chances of catching Covid-19 and of being hospitalised as a result. 

While the evidence currently suggests that Omicron is less dangerous to individuals because it spreads more quickly, it may yet overwhelm healthcare capacity. So why didn’t the Prime Minister announce any further formal measures? 

There is a big and obvious political reason, which is that, across his whole agenda, Johnson has insisted on two things: that policy must command not only a majority of the House of Commons but also a majority of Conservative MPs. The scale of the rebellion over relatively moderate non-pharmaceutical interventions essentially means that there is no prospect of anything resembling a full lockdown commanding that “double majority” any time soon.

So instead, the government is doing the one thing it can do: holding regular press conferences in which it trots out the same old lines, asks for the same old things, and gently suggesting that maybe people should dial down their social interactions. 

The problem with this policy is that it incurs all the economic costs of a formal lockdown, with businesses suffering from reduced trade due to a “lockdown from below”, but without any of the economic measures to protect businesses and households. 

The UK looks to be heading for the worst of all worlds: a large number of cases with the potential to devastate the country’s ability to provide healthcare and to maintain supply chains, and a voluntary, partial lockdown that does a great deal of economic damage without doing much to stem the spread of the Omicron variant.

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