Leading article

After Omicron: there’s no longer a case for restrictions on liberty

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

Covid-19 is in decline in Britain, with Omicron cases now falling as fast as they rose. The booster programme — which covers 95 per cent of pensioners — has helped fend off the risk of hospitals being overwhelmed. This gives Boris Johnson the chance to say that his plan worked, that Britain benefited from having the highest booster protection in Europe and that we can now repair the damage of a two-year crisis.

The great recovery can begin — or it could if Johnson were able to lead. His bizarre decision to self-isolate last week — he was under no obligation to do so — gave the impression that he was hiding from questions about his parties and staff misbehaviour during lockdown. Rather than push the success story and build on the opportunities, he has cowered.

We now know that the Plan B restrictions were never needed because Omicron poses nowhere near as much of a threat as earlier variants. The portion of Covid patients in intensive care has fallen by two-thirds. The Sage scenarios published last month suggested that by now deaths would be anything from 600 to 6,000 a day. The actual figure looks closer to 200, and even this is overstated by patients who tested positive for Covid but died of other ailments. So there is no reason to believe that, as things stand, Covid now poses a serious threat to the NHS.

When we add this to the strong economic data — unemployment being nowhere near as high as feared — there is a promising comeback narrative for the Prime Minister. But if he is unable to make this case, then he deserves his current political woes. It fits a pattern of bungling and incompetence. We avoided another Christmas lockdown more through luck than judgment: it was the cabinet who pointed out to the Prime Minister that his Sage scenarios looked deeply suspicious and that it was better to wait for real-world data.

Johnson’s party is now sceptical of all the operations in No. 10. Why was he unable to find a Chief of Staff who could have stopped the shenanigans that took place at the heart of Whitehall? Why couldn’t he have found someone who would have stopped him introducing often nonsensical restrictions in the first place? Why were these far-fetched Sage ‘scenarios’ presented to cabinet in the first place?

It is good to see Plan B is being dropped from next Thursday: so no more compulsory mask-wearing or vaccine passports. This is all welcome. But there is no longer any need for self-isolation to be mandatory. Nor is there basis for any restrictions on liberty. All Covid laws should now be replaced with guidance, in the knowledge that people can be trusted to act upon such guidance.

Johnson saved the Conservative party. He won an 80-seat majority and rescued the Brexit project from the debacle of Theresa May’s leadership. With such a strong personal mandate, he ought to have been able to provide strong leadership and deliver the low-tax, high-growth vision that he promised voters. Instead, he has raised taxes to their highest in 71 years, breaking his manifesto pledge. The partygate scandal has hurt him because it again raises the question of whether he can be trusted to be straight with voters, to keep his promises and obey his own rules.

No matter how the Tory drama ends, it is now perfectly evident what the country needs next. There must be vigilance, lest another Covid variant arrives with genuine potential to overwhelm the health service. But in the absence of such a threat, it is time to restore liberties that were taken away and to abandon the now-redundant public health bureaucracy and leave people to take their own precautions. The pandemic has taught us that they can judge risk without state edicts.

The challenge is not simply to take us back to where we were in February 2020 but to take us forward to where we had hoped to be following our departure from the EU. The Johnson administration was elected on a promise. It could make the most of Brexit: open up to the world, make Britain more competitive, less regulated and a magnet for global investment. It is vital that Covid does not forever derail that agenda.

The Tories have big questions to ask. If they get rid of Johnson, how sure are they that his successor — perhaps Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss — will do better? How big a risk is it to depose a Prime Minister who won a huge election victory just two years ago? And perhaps the biggest question of all: why are they in government? To tax the country more than any modern government has ever dared to do? Covid has given us a long new list of problems. Where are the Conservative solutions?

The pandemic might have instilled a bad habit of sweeping state interventions, high taxes and high spending but this only ever leads to crisis and decline. As normality returns, so too should the spirit of liberty and opportunity.

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