Mild omicron wave will bring down the Covid police state


Omicron’s features, in fact, have meant many of the lockdown sceptics’ 2020 lines are now valid concerns. Even Covid-19 hawks, including Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, today say focus should be on severe disease and hospitalisation, not cases. Being in the hospital “because of” Covid-19 rather than “with” Covid-19 is now widely considered an important distinction. “Focused protection” is deemed about the best we can hope for with a virus spreading like wildfire.

As rapid tests become the major source of identifying the disease, a growing proportion of Covid-19 cases will go unreported too, with little information on whether even recorded cases are asymptomatic or those with horrible symptoms. As a result, omicron makes “doing” public health policy less justifiable on some fronts and more difficult on others.

After nearly two years of restrictions, these harsh realities are being internalised in opinion polls. Though restrictions have certainly become more popular following the omicron surge, YouGov’s surveys show support has peaked at much lower levels than in earlier waves.

The public opposed closing pubs or restricting indoor mixing in December, even with omicron taking off. The proportion backing school closures rose, but to just 21pc, compared with 81pc in March 2020 and 66pc in January 2021. Even cancelling large events failed to command a majority – at 46pc support, it sat much lower than the 88pc in spring 2020 or 78pc last winter.

Yes, we should not overplay omicron’s impact on pandemic politics. Boris Johnson has extended “Plan B”, which includes working from home guidance and mask mandates for most public indoor spaces. But with the variant ripping through the population, it feels as if even these measures are being maintained to avoid public signalling that all is well, rather than out of a belief they have meaningfully “flattened the curve” to date.

The relentless unmanageable spread of this variant is simply unwinding the case for pandemic management policies, while the outbreak experience weakens public tolerance for restrictions. It would be ironic if the biggest Covid-19 wave yet was what delivered the strongest impetus to a fuller return to normality.


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