Why is it business as usual in England while Covid infections rise?

Analysis: a winter plan has been set out but implementing it could be hampered by political squeamishness

More than 20 months into the Covid pandemic and with a tough winter looming, the public could be excused for having a distinct sense of deja vu.

Infection rates are rising sharply, scientists and senior NHS figures are sounding the alarm – but the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, was touring the broadcast studios on Wednesday morning ruling out a lockdown in England and telling people “absolutely” to book their Christmas parties.

Sajid Javid’s tone in his Downing Street press conference hours later was considerably more sombre but the substance of his message was the same: for now, it is business as usual.

Unlike last autumn, when Sage scientists were unsuccessfully pressuring Boris Johnson to order a “circuit-breaker” lockdown, the government has at least set out a clear plan B.

Last month’s autumn and winter plan included returning to compulsory mask wearing, introducing vaccine passports for mass events and venues such as nightclubs, and reimposing guidance to work from home.

But having a plan does not mean No 10 is any keener to act. Boris Johnson’s ingrained reluctance to curtail the public’s freedoms – even by compelling them to wear a mask – is well known.

His former adviser Dominic Cummings attested in hearings before the health committee earlier this year that Johnson was even unconvinced the first lockdown, in March last year, had worked.

Johnson is also temperamentally opposed to working from home – he used his party conference speech to say that “we will and must see people back in the office”.

And as at earlier stages of the virus, the prime minister’s personal reluctance is bolstered by the political stance of many of his backbenchers.

The Covid Recovery Group (CRG), chaired by the former Tory chief whip Mark Harper, are vehemently opposed to vaccine passports in the form proposed by the government – with only full vaccination, not test results, accepted.

Javid confirmed earlier this week that MPs would be given a vote on the proposal before it is enacted – but the CRG believe that without Labour support it would be unlikely to pass.

So implementing the government’s plan B, even in the face of rising death rates, could be hampered both by political squeamishness at the top of government and a rebellion on the backbenches.

And there is also a sense in government that being bold about reopening worked – something they will be reluctant to reverse.

Johnson and Javid took a conscious gamble in the summer to press ahead with a “big bang” lifting of restrictions for England in July, which was condemned at the time by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, as “reckless”.

Despite the UK’s position as the outlier among western European countries in terms of infections, ministers believe hindsight has shown that to be the right decision, allowing the public to get back to some semblance of normal life. Johnson’s spokesperson frequently boasts that the UK has “one of the most open economies”.

Javid, too, has very different instincts from his predecessor Matt Hancock, who tended to advocate a precautionary approach. A fan of the libertarian author Ayn Rand, Javid said in July that he would not wear a mask in a quiet train carriage, even if asked to.

All these factors – political and personal – help explain why for the time being, the focus is on ramping up the government’s plan A. That means tackling the shortcomings of the vaccine booster programme; increasing the number of 12- to 15-year-olds getting the jab by allowing their parents to book appointments directly; and reminding the public not to “tear the pants out of it”, as England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, has repeatedly put it.

The winter plan document included advice to the public to meet outdoors if possible, keep windows open and wear masks in crowded spaces. Javid reiterated that advice on Wednesday in the hope of influencing public behaviour – though Tory MPs were packed maskless on the green benches of the House of Commons just hours earlier for prime minister’s questions.

There are also hopes in government that next week’s half-term break for schools will act as a mini firebreak, helping to stabilise infections, as social interaction between unvaccinated pupils is reduced.

If a dip in the growth rate of the pandemic fails to materialise, however, the government may yet find itself – as so many times during this long pandemic – mugged by reality.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, was notably absent from the press conference but it was hard not to recall his advice from a month ago about how to tackle a sharp rise in cases – “go hard, and go early”.

Contributor

Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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