Writing on this site two days ago, I quoted our regular contributor, Raghib Ali. He had tweeted that “going back to the models, in general, actual outcomes have been much better than worst case scenarios and have been closer to the best case scenarios”.
This view was contained in a long thread which argued that our immunity is likely to be more robust than South Africa’s; that what we know so far about the effectiveness of three vaccine doses suggests that the more pessimistic forecasts are wide of the mark, and that people are changing their behaviour, and so reducing transmission.
At that time, Boris Johnson appears to have wanted Cabinet to agree further restrictions. However, his authority is weaker than it was, and no agreement on further measures was reached. I wrote that he should recall Cabinet tomorrow, Christmas Eve, to have another look at the data.
Since then, the Prime Minister has announced that there will be no further restrictions before Christmas – which appears to rules out any Cabinet meeting, even if conducted virtually, before Monday coming, December 27.
He may think that he is still in no position to get further restrictions through Cabinet. Or it could be that he now believes, to cut a long explanation short, that the core conclusions of Raghib’s analysis were right at the time, and that studies published since suggests that it is still right now.
Or Johnson could hold both views at the same time, which I suspect is the case. It’s worth adding that on the balance of the evidence I think that he has got this latest decision right. And that the likelihood now is that no Cabinet majority could be found for more restrictions – assuming no worsening data – which might kick in too late to be of use anyway.
Indeed, parts of Government policy now seem to be pointing in different directions at once. On the one hand, the present restrictions – Plan B – announced on December 8 stand. These include asking people to work from home if they can. Which has contributed to fewer people being out and about.
On the other, it was announced this week that people infected with Covid in England can stop self-isolating up to three days early if they test negative twice. Which means that more people will be out and about.
If all goes well, the Prime Minister will claim that Plan B did the trick (brushing over his inability to get further restrictions through Cabinet). And the Conservative backbench rebels will counter that it didn’t; and that what did is the relative mildness of Omicron and voluntary action by the public. And that they were right all along.
If all doesn’t go well, the media will declare an “NHS crisis” – caused not so much by Omicron bringing patients to the doors of A&E departments as it keeping staff sick in their beds at home. Or there will be one in January anyway – as Omicron, Delta, flu, seasonal illnesses and bed blocking all kick in together.
It’s one thing for politicians, NHS managers and scientists to seek restrictions because of the risk that a tide of patients turning up at at A & E during a pandemic risks overwhelm the system. It would be quite another for them to do so because of a seasonal crisis which the service faces every year.
It may be a statement of the obvious to say that the NHS is there for the people, not the people for the NHS. But public debate and public policy is conducted as though the opposite were true.
The system is consuming record amounts of taxpayers’ money – of which the Health and Social Care Levy is the latest manifestation – while remaining as fragile as ever. As Andrew Haldenby has argued on this site, the NHS now needs more spending less than improved productivity.