Politics

Tories at war as Johnson faces Covid crisis, by Mike Settle

THIS week’s good Santa/bad Santa press conference in Downing Street has left the hospitality industry with the mother of pre-Christmas hangovers and cast serious doubt over Boris Johnson’s avuncular assurance that this festive season will be “considerably better” than the last one.

The PM’s message of “party but do it carefully” came as there were more claims of rule-flouting in Downing Street and contrasted with Professor Chris Whitty’s call for people to deprioritise socialising, which is more in line with Nicola Sturgeon’s advice to Scots to limit who you mix with.

Johnson denied imposing a “lockdown by stealth” amid allegations his medical advisers were “running the show” on Covid policy.

Indeed, Conservative backbencher Joy Morrissey, clearly incensed by Whitty’s remarks, pointed out Britain was not a “public health socialist state”. She later deleted the tweet.

READ MORE: Covid: Can I still go Christmas present shopping?

It seems certain this Christmas will be filled with an array of numbers, virtually all bad.

The much-advertised Omicron tsunami has arrived right on cue. On Tuesday, UK infection numbers totalled 59,610. On Wednesday, they were 78,610 and yesterday 88,376. A rise of almost 50% in just two days. The previous record was 68,053 on January 8.

However, because of the weeklong time-lag between infections and their feeding through into official figures, then the real infection rate is much higher; at least four times so, according to leading epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson. Which would make the current UK rate more like 353,000.

Given the Omicron surge, the French Government yesterday announced a ban from Saturday on UK tourists and is urging its citizens not to come to Britain, thus effectively cancelling the cross-Channel family get-together for thousands of people.

And Buckingham Palace confirmed the Queen had, as a precaution, cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family party at Windsor Castle next week.

As the “national mission” of delivering millions more boosters continues – Wednesday saw another record daily high of 745,183 third jabs – laboratory analysis suggested Omicron is the Usain Bolt of variants, accelerating some 70 times faster than Delta.

Hospitalisation is already up 10% on last week and in London – the least vaccinated part of England – where Omicron is now the dominant variant, it is up by almost 33%. By today, it should also be the dominant strain in Scotland.

Another boffin, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, said if case numbers were, as estimated, doubling every two days, then “you get to 11 million on Christmas Day and the entire country on New Year’s Eve. Now, this is not sensible. This is not going to happen. So it’s bound to curve off at some point”.

Indeed, the good professor suggested there were signs the rate was already beginning to slow, although, at present, there doesn’t seem to be any official data to back this up. But, of course, it will do at some point; the sooner, the better.

And Prof Spiegelhalter pointed out the underlying truth. “There’s huge uncertainty about what the actual impact will be. It could be considerably better than last winter, it could be worse.”

However, as swaths of people cancel Christmas lunches and dinners, one thing the hospitality industry is not suffering from is uncertainty; this festive season is looking like a complete disaster.

Where, people asked, was Rishi Sunak? In California on a “long-planned trip on Government business,” replied the Treasury, which quickly pointed how the Chancellor had spoken to several hospitality sector representatives yesterday to “hear their concerns”.

The FM urged him not to “sleep walk into an emergency” caused by the Omicron surge, demanding he step up and provide more financial support to businesses; inaction would risk “sacrificing economic recovery,” she warned.

Such is the level of Sturgeon’s concern she told MSPs she had written to Johnson urging him to “put the necessary support schemes in place”, and, noting “such is the urgency” of the situation, she had asked for a one-to-one chat yesterday evening.

Patrick Dardis, who heads Young’s pub chain, denounced the “mixed messages” of the Number 10 press conference and warned “thousands and thousands” of hospitality businesses faced collapse in the New Year.

UKHospitality said the sector had lost more than a third of its trade, £2 billion so far in December, regarded traditionally as its golden month. It urged Sunak to extend business rates relief and VAT discounts.

Of course, many of us, who might like to go to a pub or restaurant in the next fortnight, won’t be able to anyway because we’ll be engaged in the new Christmas pastime of self-isolating.

Estimates vary as to how many Covid cases across the UK there will be come the big day; from a conservative one of 1m to a more startling one of 4m.

Prof Whitty pointed out a virus spike was likely to lead to many people, including NHS workers, being ill simultaneously. “We may end up with quite substantial gaps in rotas at short notice,” he explained.

Pointing out how the Delta and Omicron strains were coinciding, creating two parallel epidemics, the UK Government’s Chief Medical Adviser Whitty admitted there were many things the experts did not know about the new variant, yet pointed out in his characteristically deadpan way: “But all the things we do know are bad.”

Which, of course, raises the possibility of yet more restrictions.

Yet while this would be difficult north of the border, perhaps politically, it would be even more so south of it given the general disgruntlement of Tories with, yes, the Tory Government.

The whopping 100-strong Conservative rebellion this week has placed Boris in a parlous position as by doing what he regards is the right thing in a national emergency – and thereby relying more and more on Keir Starmer and the comrades to get measures through – he is digging his own political grave.

We can but hope it doesn’t come to anything like a full lockdown and this Christmas is the last when we have to celebrate under the suffocating pall of Covid and can finally say goodbye to using the Greek alphabet.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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