Will it be another lockdown Christmas?
- Credit: PA
This time last year, Boris Johnson was promising not to cancel Christmas in the face of rapidly rising coronavirus rates.
Against the backdrop of countless public health bosses pleading for him to put a damper on the festive season, the prime minister said that taking such a step would be “frankly inhuman and go against the instincts of a majority of people in this country”.
He’s right. For the majority of people in the UK, a year without Christmas would be a travesty.
And it seemed freedom-loving Mr Johnson would not have been able to abide being only the second British leader to cancel Christmas – after Oliver Cromwell.
He resisted making the scrooge-like decision even as Covid rates rose rapidly driven by – what was at the time called – the Kent variant.
The decision not to lock down the country down sooner in the face of the Alpha variant was, the Resolution Foundation said, a “huge mistake”.
The think-tank blamed the delay for up to 27,000 extra deaths.
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Now, with the spectre of a new variant looming over Christmas once again, the prime minister is once again steadfast.
He has told people to go about their business like normal – go to nativity plays, don’t cancel Christmas parties, he said.
But at the same time Dr Jenny Harries, boss of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and one of the UK's top public health experts, said: “If we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay.”
This provoked an angry response from the prime minister’s spokesman.
He said: “The UKHSA is an arms-length body of government, and Jenny Harries provides advice to government, she is not a government minister.”
Therese Coffey, the boss of the Department of Work and Pensions waded in with a bizarre intervention, telling the public: “For what it’s worth, I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe.”
She later clarified her position, saying people need only avoid kissing people they “don’t know” this festive season.
This contradictory advice is not exactly helping anyone decide how many people to squeeze round the table for Christmas dinner.
So in among all this bluster, will it be another lockdown?
Cases of Omicron have been gradually rising since it was first detected in this country last week.
According to the latest government stats, only 29 cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in the UK – compared to roughly 40,000 total coronavirus cases being discovered every day.
Despite the new strain officially being designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation, it is still a long way off overtaking Delta as the dominant strain in the UK.
Early, anecdotal, reports from South Africa say that – despite being highly transmissible – the strain is only causing mild symptoms in the country’s young-ish population.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, the doctor who first discovered the variant, first encountered it in a man in his early 30s who presented with tiredness and a mild headache, but none of the usual coronavirus symptoms.
But how the variant will affect this country’s significantly older population remains to be seen.
When asked, Dr Coetzee said the UK was panicking unnecessarily. But, she added, in two weeks the situation could be different.
Better news comes from a major new study into the effectiveness of booster jabs.
A team of experts studying the effects of third doses said the body’s T cell immune response after a booster shot is such that it may provide protection from hospital admission and death.
The study also backs up the UK’s decision to use Pfizer or Moderna as a third shot – with mRNA jabs leading to the most significant rise in immunity levels.
While the Omicron variant was not tested directly Professor Saul Faust, who led the study, said: “Our hope as scientists is that protection against hospitalisation and death will remain intact.”
The UK has already administered more than 19 million booster shots, putting it in a good spot compared to many other countries.
However more cases of Omicron are probably out there undiscovered and scientists are learning more about the new strain every day.
In the face of all of this information it can be bewildering, but what the country needs to stay sane is clarity – the squabbles between politicians and health experts are helping no-one.