The Guardian view on mixed Omicron messages: Christmas party politics

·3 min read

Another day, another set of bad Covid figures, and another jumble of mixed messages from Boris Johnson. Ever since the threat from the Omicron variant arose, the UK government has hedged its bets on how seriously it should be taken. The semi-reputable reason is that the data about the variant and its impact is not yet clear; things will be better in two weeks. The wholly disreputable reason is that it takes avoidable risks with lives and health for political reasons. This week the government has ramped up the booster vaccine rollout; on Thursday it announced the purchase of 114m new doses. Yet it has also run a mile from giving clear guidance to the public on how to respond over the Christmas period. On Thursday this happened again, twice.

First the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, one of Mr Johnson’s more independent-minded cabinet ministers, told an interviewer that snogging under the mistletoe with strangers should be avoided for health reasons. She was quickly disowned by Downing Street for trespassing into decisions it sublets to individuals (though not for overlooking that people you know and kiss may be carriers too). Then the science minister, George Freeman, one of the government’s more sensible voices, said that he was against large Christmas parties this year and that his department had cancelled its own. A couple of hours later, Downing Street hung him out to dry too.

This is a hopeless approach. It has all the intellectual coherence of the “Go to work. Don’t go to work. Go outside. Don’t go outside” shambles mocked by the comedian Matt Lucas 18 months ago. It seeds confusion into the public mind about how to behave. People “shouldn’t be cancelling things”, says Mr Johnson with his eye on the Daily Mail front page. Yet many are already doing so because, rightly, they don’t trust the message or the messenger.

The ambivalence also gives permission to the minority who behave irresponsibly. All this is a deliberate policy and not an oversight. Mr Johnson knows that there is a serious threat from Omicron and the other active variants. But he is too scared to face up to it.

There are many reasons for this feckless approach. Mr Johnson is by temperament a rule-breaker not a rule-maker. He is also frightened of the dozens of Conservative backbenchers who have become serial Commons rebels and threaten his majority. He is under serious pressure from commercial interests – especially the hospitality and travel industries – to prioritise their businesses over public health, a stance supported by the Treasury. In addition, he hates being pilloried by the once-supportive tabloid press about the threat to Christmas. And he sees his ratings slipping, so is terrified of doing anything he thinks might be unpopular or help Nigel Farage rise from the political grave.

It adds up to a contemptible way of leading the country. The consolation is that Mr Johnson is gradually being found out, though too slowly. Stories about crowded Christmas parties in Downing Street last year cut through this week because they speak to a larger scandal. They underscore that while the public obeys the rules, Mr Johnson ignores them. It is what he always does. It is what his henchman Dominic Cummings did. Emmanuel Macron was reported this week as telling his aides that Mr Johnson is a gougnafier – a good-for-nothing. On this, the president is spot on.

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