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‘We don’t want to cancel Christmas… I think that would be inhuman,” the prime minister said just last Wednesday in response to calls from scientific experts to reduce the relaxation of social restrictions allowing households to mix over Christmas.
Four days later, he was forced to abruptly change course in light of alarming data indicating a steep increase in infection rates in London and parts of the south-east and east of England, thought to be linked to a new and more easily transmitted variant of Covid-19. The government was right to immediately impose tougher tier 4 restrictions on these parts of the country and elsewhere to restrict indoors household mixing to Christmas Day only.
It is clear that without these measures there would have been a huge risk of a rise in infection and death rates in January and February as a result of intergenerational mixing over Christmas, particularly endangering older people and those with pre-existing health conditions. This is likely to have put the NHS under intolerable strain as it reached the worst point of the year in terms of winter pressures, compromising the treatment not only of people with severe Covid symptoms, but with any serious health condition. The fact that vaccines are being rolled out to high-priority groups, with more comprehensive coverage months away, underlines how ill-judged it would be to trigger a larger-than-necessary spike in the death rate with the end of this period of social restrictions in sight.
But the late nature of this decision will cause considerable pain and heartbreak to families who have been encouraged to look forward to Christmas for weeks by a prime minister who, in characteristic form, foolishly over-promised in an attempt to avoid being the bearer of bad news.
For weeks, scientific experts, including members of Sage, have urged caution with respect to Christmas relaxations, given the direction in which infection rates were heading. For weeks, they have warned that it is a question of balance and that relaxing restrictions against a backdrop of rising infection rates could lead to a significant number of avoidable deaths. It is understandable that the government wanted to allow people to see their families at Christmas after the year we have had. But Johnson should have been honest with the public that there was no guarantee of any Christmas relaxation, that it was contingent on the state of the play with the virus. Instead, he gave false reassurances and encouraged families to make and look forward to plans that, for many, will now not come to pass.
The government cannot be held responsible for this more infectious variant, just as it cannot be held responsible for a pandemic, but many people will be justifiably angry with Johnson. This is the latest in a long line of communication errors in which he has blamed individuals, rather than failures of government policy, for increasing infection rates. And he has consistently played politics in response to fair scrutiny from the opposition; days ago, he belittled Keir Starmer for wanting to “cancel Christmas” in response to questions about why he was not acting in light of the variant and increasing infection rates.
The government has also committed blunder after blunder that has made it harder to keep the virus in check; from procurement failures over PPE; to a test and trace system, large parts of which were contracted out to corporations with a track record of shambolic delivery, which has proved completely unfit for purpose; to its omission to make it financially possible for people on low incomes to self-isolate when required.
People will feel that they have held up their side of the bargain – following difficult and painful rules that have kept them away from loved ones for months – only to be let down by a government that has placed too much emphasis on making bombastic and reckless guarantees and too little on taking the timely action required to halt the spread of the virus.
Source: The Guardian
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