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- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
This time around he appears to have decided – so far at least – that he doesn’t fancy reprising the role of the Christmas Grinch in the Downing Street pantomime.
At yesterday’s press conference, quizzed on dire data about the rampant spread of the new Covid variant Omicron, the prime minister promised that this Christmas would be better than last year’s, though he didn’t repeat his exhortation of a few days ago to carry on partying. His festive plans were modest, he added.
But the really blood-curdling message was left to that unlikely panto villain, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty. “Don’t mix with people you don’t have to,” he warned sternly, advising us to “prioritise social interactions that really matter.”
At the No 10 lecterns, the clash between science and politics loomed large. As the Daily Mail put it in its headline today: “It’s Boris versus the scientists.”
Science deals in the remorseless logic of exponential growth. Look at the figures, and it’s there in black and white. Omicron is spreading at devastating speed, and even if this variant causes less serious disease, a small percentage of a big number of infections is still a lot of hospitalisations and potentially deaths. Politics, on the other hand, is far more impressionistic. Politicians like Boris Johnson believe they have an instinctive handle on what’s going on in people’s heads. They also want to be liked. So there’s a serious tension.
The government’s former chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport spelt it out on last night’s Channel 4 News: “The science is very straightforward. What the science basically says is if you want to stop the infection spreading then you have to reduce as much social contact as you can. But it’s then a much more difficult policy decision … deciding how much to restrict people’s ability to socialise, given that Christmas last year was wrecked for everyone and clearly they don’t want to repeat that.”
How long has it been since we heard the mantra: “We will be guided by the science”? Johnson no longer even pretends the scientists are in the driving seat. Instead, it’s his backbenchers who have their hands on the wheel. And some of them make a powerful argument.
The chairman of the Education Committee Robert Halfon – never a natural rebel – voted against the vaccine pass plan B measures in the Commons this week. Explaining his decision to me last night, he said he was “very wary” of further restrictions because of the devastating impact on people’s mental health, and in particular our children’s wellbeing.
Yes, the science is straightforward when it’s represented in numbers and graphs, but politicians also have to consider the unintended consequences of lockdowns on an array of other mental and physical health conditions.
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There comes a point, though, when hospitalisations and deaths reach such a scale, that MPs simply run out of road. That’s what happened last year, and when Professor Whitty spoke yesterday of records being broken, he clearly fears a re-run.
The other Prof, Sir Mark Walport, agreed that although it was “very difficult to be very accurate” about the risks of the NHS being overwhelmed, “there’s certainly a risk of something that looks very similar – and it could be worse” than the last peak.
Even if Johnson is no longer cancelling Christmas for us then, many are saving him the bother, calling off parties, and long-anticipated gatherings. The danger this time, however, is that a sizeable minority may no longer be willing to do what they’re told for the greater good.
The night before Johnson’s sombre 19 December TV appearance, there was a Christmas gathering at No 10. If he stands up this Sunday and orders people to stay at home – his staff might not be the only ones who fail to pay attention.
Cathy Newman presents ‘Channel 4 News’, weekdays, at 7pm