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Voices: ‘Enjoy yourselves cautiously’ is a vague and confusing message for New Year’s Eve

·4-min read
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  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
  • Graham Brady
    British politician (born 1967)

“Everybody should enjoy new year but in a cautious and sensible way,” Boris Johnson said today on a visit to a vaccination centre (of course). But “enjoy yourselves cautiously” is a vague and confusing message from the government after it decided not to bring in post-Christmas restrictions in England to match those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and much of Europe).

It’s the latest in a line of mixed messages from a government that does not learn from its previous communications mistakes. After being mocked for saying “don’t go to work, go to work,” it feels like we are now being told: “Do go to parties, don’t go to parties.”

It’s an abdication of duty by Johnson. Ministers talk about relying on the common sense of the British people. Indeed, many people followed Chris Whitty’s advice to prioritise their social mixing and changed their plans in the run-up to Christmas – but Johnson could not bring himself to amplify the chief medical officer’s message, as he should have done.

The prime minister is gambling on avoiding further restrictions in England for the wrong reason. Allies claim it’s about protecting the economy but it’s an open secret that the biggest factor is party politics, as Johnson looks nervously over his shoulder at the nearly 100 Tory MPs who voted against Covid curbs. Some issue dark warnings that 150 could rebel if he tries to tighten the rules further. No wonder he wants to avoid new rules that would require another Commons vote. If he does decide to go further, put your money on “guidance” rather than rules requiring parliamentary approval.

But Johnson is looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope; the science should come before the politics, and the scientists are warning against delaying curbs.

Sensing his weakness, the lockdown sceptics in parliament use every trick in the book to put pressure on the prime minister. They deliberately conflate Covid restrictions with his future, suggesting someone with clean hands such as Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, might run in a leadership contest. These hints come from “senior Tories” – a group which, of course, includes Brady. Whenever a leadership election comes – and it could happen next summer if Johnson can’t turn things round in the new year – I doubt Brady will trouble the scorers. But why not rattle Johnson’s cage now to get what they want?

The prime minister’s diminishing authority also makes it harder for him to manage his own cabinet. Would-be successors including Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss reassure backbenchers they are on the side of the angels when it comes to Covid restrictions.

There is cautious optimism – there’s that C-word again – in Downing Street that Johnson made the right call on avoiding further restrictions before Christmas and New Year, boosted by four studies on the severity of the Omicron variant. But he is not out of the woods yet. Staff absences, rather than the number of hospitalisations, may now prove to be the NHS’s greatest challenge.

With an estimated 800,000 people self-isolating, ministers are under intense pressure to cut the isolation period for those with Covid from seven to five days, as in the US. There are no such plans yet, but it will probably happen at some point so Johnson can keep his ever-hungry backbenchers and disenchanted newspaper cheerleaders happy.

There can no longer be any pretence that ministers are following the science in England – even though leaders of the three devolved administrations toughened the rules on the basis of the same data. Most of the public also follow the science. Many also trust scientists to tell the truth (83 per cent) more than ministers or politicians (both 19 per cent), according to Ipsos MORI.

It’s good that the public show more common sense in their actions than political leaders do in their messaging. But it’s worrying when people stick to the rules despite the government rather than because of it. The disconnect between the government’s “be cautious” mantra and its failure to bring in new restrictions underlines why more measures are needed to ram home the message.

The danger is that people in England think: “It can’t be that risky, or they would have stopped it.” And Johnson had no answer today to the prospect that people in Scotland and Wales will cross the border on New Year’s Eve to take advantage of the less stringent rules in England. A UK-wide approach would be much better.

Have a happy – and cautious – new year.

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