There’s no better word to describe how the Omicron news felt than the oft-mocked millennial term “triggering”. Just weeks away from Christmas, after another terrible year, a new Covid variant had arrived and was spreading rapidly, prompting questions about whether new restrictions were necessary. If it has been a novel, critics would have called it lazy: how dull to simply repeat exactly what happened last year.
We still don’t know enough about Omicron’s transmissibility or the severity of illness that it causes, but now looming behind every Covid-related news story is the question, does this mean there’s another lockdown coming? While it seems politically unlikely, case numbers are rising and minor restrictions have returned, such as the English mask mandate on public transport and in shops. And while early signs show Omicron may not be as potent as previous variants, there are questions about how effective vaccines are at preventing it.
Even before Omicron emerged, polling suggested public appetites were growing for another lockdown (case numbers have been rising since the start of autumn). That said, this still remained a minority preference, with just 28 per cent of people in England saying they would support only allowing people to leave their homes for essential shopping, exercise and work, up from 20 per cent in October and 17 per cent in July – according to a YouGov attitudes survey.
Whether they like it or not, more than half of British people think new Covid-19 restrictions are likely to be brought in at Christmas, according to a YouGov poll last month. (In a sense they’ve already been proved correct, since rules on mask-wearing have been reintroduced.)
It’s easy to frame those eager for new lockdown restrictions as punitive – seeking to punish those who have not been “good” – and full of vindictive glee, especially when you learn that one proposal even more popular with the public is the idea of an indefinite national lockdown starting in December for those who have not received at least two coronavirus vaccinations (similar to a recent policy introduced in Austria). ComRes found in November that almost half (45 per cent) of people support that, with 32 per cent opposing it. (For context: around 80 per cent of people have been double-jabbed in the UK.)
But support for a new lockdown can also be attributed to genuine, crippling fear of the grave risks a new variant poses. It’s easy for those of us who didn’t lose loved ones – or have no one in our lives suffering from long Covid – to forget just how bad the death rates were last winter. The UK had some of the worst in the world, and though 80 per cent of the population is now vaccinated, we are still far from herd immunity. Many people fear for friends and family who are clinically vulnerable, and for loved ones who have succumbed to vaccine misinformation.
There are also concerns over what Omicron means for the NHS. ComRes polling in October found that most people (58 per cent) think a two-week “firebreak” lockdown would be effective at relieving pressure on the health service. The lower support for measures to manage Covid-19 compared with last year is because vaccines have brought a measure of control to the pandemic. ONS data – gathered before the new mask-wearing rules were put in place in England – reveals that fewer people are self-isolating than were earlier in the year, even if they test positive (though the vast majority still do). Before Omicron, people were also feeling less anxious about the effect of Covid-19 on their lives, and fewer people were socially distancing as a result. It’s still too early to say how the new variant will change these trends.
While there are conflicting ideas about whether a new lockdown would be all that effective, we should be empathetic to those who are frightened of rules coming back. Missing Christmas 2020 was devastating for people who had been clinging to the hope of a more normal one this year. Beyond Christmas, last year’s winter lockdown was brutal, causing huge spikes in anxiety and depression, leaving many fearful of being plunged into the same conditions again.
Whatever the perspective, this data seems to show that a significant portion of the country is vying for your life to get worse – whether it’s putting you at higher risk of catching a new variant or taking away the first shred of normalcy you’ve had since 2019. But it’s worth remembering, as the government continues to push responsibility on to individuals, that the motivations come, largely, from a place of genuine concern. We must recognise this fear, and stop mischaracterising it as glee.
[See also: The global race to contain Omicron]