Monday’s Cabinet meeting held over Zoom was a fraught affair by the sounds of it.
Michael Gove and Sajid Javid were reportedly the leading voices calling for more restrictions on household mixing and on the hospitality sector, while the likes of Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss argued that the data did not warrant such a draconian and retrograde step.
The Prime Minister seems to have been swaying somewhere in the middle. In the end it was agreed that no new restrictions would be imposed that day but the data would be constantly analysed with a view to imposing restrictions swiftly and before Christmas if alarming trends were picked up on the burden Omicron was placing on the NHS.
No doubt all who took part were keenly aware of the huge responsibilities that come with making such decisions, imagining that they held the fate of the nation in their hands. Well, as Evelyn Waugh might have put it: up to a point Lord Copper.
That’s because much of the British public has simply moved on in this debate. In fact, the very idea of limiting liberty with the backing of the criminal law in the latest phase of the fight against Covid has run out of road. Johnson and co. might as well have been discussing how to deploy imaginary tank divisions in the field, Downfall-style, as contemplating edicts telling families what they must or must not do, or who they can and cannot see, at Christmas. After two years of their lives being put on hold – and wholeheartedly getting behind the idea of mass vaccination as the pathway out of Covid – much of the public simply may not obey ministerial orders about who can sit around the table on Christmas day.
Three weeks’ worth of revelations about the repeated flouting of lockdown rules and laws by the PM and his own inner circle have accelerated the new mood. ‘You self-isolate, we have Sancerre together in the garden behind your backs’ is not a serviceable conjugation of the lockdown verb.
Signs of the public taking back control are cropping up wherever normal folk gather in large numbers. At the football in Leeds and at a darts tournament at the Alexandra Palace, burly blokes have broken out into spontaneous and highly disobliging chants about the Prime Minister.
Yet all is not lost when it comes to the citizenry cooperating in the fight against this wretched disease. Millions of people have responded to the call to get their vaccine boosters – including many hundreds of thousands for whom the risk of serious illness from Covid is vanishingly small.
The crucial point is that they have not been ordered to do it. Instead, ministers and senior public health officials have made the case for why they should get their booster, setting out the arguments fairly and urging compliance. The nudging and even the cajoling has largely been accepted and has largely worked.
Instead of pondering a return to the methods and weaponry of earlier phases in the war on Covid, the Prime Minister would be well advised to adapt to current circumstances. He should set out a new philosophy for fighting new variants from now on: in the absence of a truly catastrophic turn of events that propels infection fatality and hospitalisation rates back to pre-vaccine levels, Boris Johnson should pledge that the criminal law will no longer be applied to enforce ministerial decisions about social distancing and the like.
In other words, from now on guidance and persuasion must be the tools deployed to inhibit the disease rather than the prospect of a policeman’s knock on the door or students being hit with £10,000 fines for inviting over some mates.
Announcing such a principle would transform Johnson’s increasingly fraught relationship with his own party and, I predict, usher in a renewed spirit of widespread cooperation and readiness to make sacrifices for the greater good among the general public as a whole.
Going in for a new round of emergency laws would, on the other hand, run an ever-escalating risk of proving counter-productive, leading many reasonable people to adopt a generally combative approach to the authorities.
Ask us nicely, explain why you are asking, and use your huge media platform to make your case, Prime Minister. But don’t ban things that your own entourage have been caught doing behind our backs. Treat us as grown-ups and sort out the adolescent behaviour among your own employees and then the war on Covid can be won.
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