Boris Johnson has unveiled a series of measures designed to slow the spread of the Omicron variant in England. Masks will be required in most indoor settings, while proof of either double-jabbed status or a negative lateral flow test will be mandatory for entry to night clubs and large in-person events. (That is events of 500 people or more indoors, 4000 unseated outdoors, and 10,000 or more seated outdoors.) And the government is once again recommending that everyone who can work from home does so.
The argument for this approach is that it will slow the spread of the new variant while buying time for people to receive their third Covid-19 booster jab. But the approach has two problems. The first is medical: these measures are already in place in Scotland and Wales and they don’t appear to have slowed the spread of the Omicron variant there. The second and third are political: a large number Conservative MPs oppose all these measures, and vaccine passports in particular. While there is, in practice, a large majority in the House of Commons for these measures regardless, it isn’t clear they can be implemented without a major internal row within the Tory party.
Ultimately these measures are all small-beer: they meet a political need to be seen to do something rather than being something that is guaranteed to work. Large numbers of people are essentially already following them and they won’t make a tangible difference to most people’s lives. They buy time, politically as much as anything else, to work out if there is a need to do the big and significant non-pharmaceutical interventions, like full lockdowns, to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed.
But the bigger political issue is that it is also unclear whether it is possible to maintain consent for the more drastic measures, such as the closure of hospitality venues and further limits on social contacts, given the questions that still remain about whether or not lockdown regulations were followed at the heart of government.