Once again the PM failed to act, serving his own interests

“Boris Johnson cannot act because his party will not let him.”

Editorial: www.independent.co.uk 

It hardly needs to be stated that no government of almost any kind, let alone a free, democratic one, likes to impose restrictions on its people’s most basic liberties. At various points over the Christmas period, new, legally binding restrictions have been or will be imposed in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in Scotland.

These include limits on the numbers of people who can meet indoors and outdoors, in different kinds of venues. In Scotland, pubs have been restricted to table service only, and only three households may mix together. In Wales and Northern Ireland, nightclubs are shut, alongside various other limits on social interaction of the kind we are all too familiar.

Political leaders take these measures with unimaginably extreme reluctance, and they do so because their scientific advisers have warned them of the consequences coming down the line if they do not act.

And yet the overall prime minister of these three semi-autonomous countries, Boris Johnson, has not acted. He has received, by and large, the same advice as Mark Drakeford, as Nicola Sturgeon and as Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill. But the part of the country over which he does have authority, namely England, has the most severe Covid crisis on its hands by a huge margin, and yet no new legal measures have been introduced, and given the time that it would take to do so, nor will they before the end of this calendar year.

The reasons for this are clear. They are political. Boris Johnson cannot act because his party will not let him. Last time he tried to bring in new restrictions, he was dependent on the Labour Party to do so, and a hundred of his own MPs rebelled. That is a massive rebellion, quite possibly the second largest in parliamentary history. (Only Theresa May’s first meaningful Brexit vote, when 118 of her own MPs voted against her, was more damning.)

It means, in no uncertain terms, that the prime minister does not have the authority within his own party, which is the governing party, to act on the advice of his own scientific advisers, to take the very basic steps that other parts of his own country consider to be necessary to maintain public health.

The politicians and the large part of the media that continue to support him will continue repeating the same old debatable and uncertain narratives (we deliberately stop short of the word facts); that the Omicron variant causes less severe illness, that the data is not sufficient, as if they somehow understand more than the scientific advisers, when they palpably do not. The data is sufficient for leaders with political authority to act. They have already acted. Because they can, and because they know it’s the right thing to do.

All that is happening is the same old dreary ideological battle, except it’s not dreary, it’s deeply unsettling, not least because it’s happened so many times already in the last almost two full years, with the same consequences, and the same lack of action.

There are many reasons to believe that we, which is to say the rich countries, are reaching the end of our epidemic (the pandemic is not nearly over, and nor will it be until the rich countries get real about vaccinating the entire world). New therapeutic and retroviral treatments that will make Covid-19 a manageable disease are about to hit the mainstream. But they do not mean that the need to act, for one last final push, now, has gone away. It’s obvious. It’s just that the only people who refuse to see it are calling the shots, with entirely predictable results.