By the end of the week before last, at least 24 NHS trusts had declared “critical incidents“. This doesn’t mean that they stopped seeing emergency patients and closed the doors of A & Es. The media could have pounced on the news and declared an “NHS crisis”. It didn’t. Why?
My hunch is that after the best part of two years of restrictions, journalists are as weary of them as most other people are. And that even in the media outlets that have given them the most play, there was limited appetite for ramping up another winter story about a crisis in the NHS.
The facts have helped the Government. 246,261 Covid cases were recorded for December 29. The most recent complete number was 82,599. 2604 people were recorded as being admitted to hospital with Covid on December 29 and 2423 on January 7.
Daily deaths with Covid on the death certificate peaked last year as long ago as October 31 at 192 on the day of recording. There are controversies about time lags, but there can be little doubt that Omicron is receding, and none about its lack of severity compared to Delta – hence the relative lack of pressure on intensive care beds.
There has been no flu epidemic, and the weather has remained relatively mild – which is always helpful to the NHS in the winter months. So in sum, Boris Johnson has been a lucky general over Omicron. There can be little doubt that the Cabinet was probed for further restrictions before Christmas and resisted them.
Had he been in a stronger position at that point, England’s restrictions might now be marching in step with those in the rest of the UK. Nonetheless, lucky generals sometimes deserve their good fortune, and the evidence we have suggests that the Prime Minister’s instincts throughout the pandemic have been resistant to restrictions.
I argued on January 6 that the self-isolation period should be cut to five days if tests allow. The reduction came last week on January 13. It was claimed over the weekend that most of the Plan B restrictions may be lifted by the end of the month.
Johnson might now be enjoying a poll uptick, and preparing a response to any further Covid variants. These would include running the NHS less “hot”, having formal advice on Covid that covers all outcomes and not just health ones, and a bar on SAGE members freelancing in the media.
Instead, “partygate” leaves him in desperate peril. So “Operation Red Meat” has been launched to “save Big Dog”. Downing Street’s hope is that by changing the subject, the Prime Minister’s ratings will improve, against a background in which the pandemic fades away.
Government sources are claiming that “the last BBC licence fee negotiation ever” is taking place, and that asylum applicants may be resettled abroad. This is scarcely the first time that the last measure has been floated. Much may depend on whether the meat is fit for human consumption.
Number Ten will already have a plan to make the BBC’s services accessible to all, on some other basis, if this is really to be the end of licence fee negotiations. It will also have identified those other countries to which asylum applicants will be sent if it is to begin to reduce the pull factors that attract “small boats”.
Assuming both to be the case, Johnson will be insulated from charges that he is rushing out a series of unthought-through announcements in order to save his government – mediated through a Downing Street team which he’s preparing to purge in the wake of Sue Gray’s report.