We cannot afford to postpone a return to normality

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In the days after omicron was first identified in South Africa, the concern among some scientists was that the brutal logic of exponential growth and the increased transmissibility of the new variant would see the sheer weight of case numbers overwhelm the NHS, even if the mutant strain did turn out to be milder. Plan B of the Covid winter plan was rapidly imposed. In advance of Christmas, pressure grew for the Government to go further. In the epicentre of the wave, London, the virus tore through the population at a seemingly unprecedented rate.

In the weeks since, the progress of omicron has not justified the even tighter restrictions some had demanded. As had happened in South Africa, where the wave appears to have been benign compared to previous variants, UK cases do not seem to be rising precipitously any longer. In the capital, cases plateaued and now seem to be trending downwards.

It is true that hospitals face a difficult period ahead – with problems in some trusts likely to be down to poor management and staff absence, rather than the numbers of patients requiring intensive care. There are concerns about the spread of the variant into older age groups, too, although the advance of the booster programme may counteract that to some extent. But at some point soon, it ought to be possible to say that the worst of omicron is behind us.

The economic situation certainly is not benign. Inflation, rising energy prices, the shock to sectors such as hospitality caused by Plan B, as well as impending tax rises have thrown the recovery off course, and threaten significant pain for millions of households. One economist has described the likely effects as similar to those of the financial crisis. The costs of two years of feather-bedding the economy during repeated lockdowns are due.

The Government has shown little sign of grasping the seriousness of the situation. We are told to expect some action on energy bills, although no cut to VAT on fuel. But the tax increases stand. The Treasury is to some extent boxed in by the perilous state of the public finances and the fear that the era of cheap money will soon be over. The financial bounty promised to the NHS will be impossible to withdraw.

Given these circumstances, the country can hardly afford to retain the restrictions that are in place for a moment longer than necessary. Home-working guidance is devastating city centres and damaging productivity. Self-isolation rules are keeping millions off work. Many bars and pubs remain empty.

Boris Johnson was brave to defy the “experts” convinced that omicron made necessary the return of even more draconian curbs on our freedoms. Now, he must be brave again and set out a plan to return the country to normality.

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