Since the beginning of 2020, we have all become used to living with uncertainty: estimating relative risks; thinking of how to protect ourselves and others; attempting to plot out lives in which school, jobs, travel and time with loved ones have a question mark attached.
Now that uncertainty has increased again. The World Health Organization has said that the Omicron variant poses a very high global risk of infection surges. Experts suggest that it will take around a fortnight before the extent of the threat it poses becomes clearer, in terms of how much it sickens those it infects and how well existing vaccines perform against it. The chief executive of the US drugmaker Moderna, Stéphane Bancel, has warned that “there is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness of vaccines] is the same level” as with Delta.
The good news is that we are not back at square one: the variant is very unlikely to fully escape vaccines. This is why the government is once more counting on their power. It “will throw everything” at a booster drive, Boris Johnson said on Tuesday. The prime minister was announcing an ambitious target of 3.5m jabs a week, with all adults being offered (though not necessarily receiving) a booster by the end of January.
The question is whether that is enough, and what we should do while we are waiting to find out. Even if Omicron proves no more likely than Delta to cause severe infection, it could still result in more hospitalisations and deaths if it is much more transmissible. It takes time to deliver boosters, and experts have repeatedly warned of the danger of counting on vaccines alone. Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, suggested that “not socialising when we don’t particularly need to” would be important; in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, people are advised to work from home if they can. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is encouraging mask wearing in all enclosed spaces.
But with a hospitality industry struggling to get off its knees and Tory backbenchers instinctively opposed to even minor restrictions, Mr Johnson said he saw no need to change the overall guidance on how people live their lives and told them not to cancel Christmas parties. He believes this is a “balanced and proportionate” response.
The public may disagree. In previous waves, it has proved – rightly – more cautious than the government, with people reducing contact before the first lockdown and cancelling Christmas plans before the prime minister called a halt to festivities at the 11th hour last year. One survey found that 68% believe it is likely that further restrictions will be needed during the Christmas period. Several theatres will now insist that audience members cover their faces. It is hard to understand why masks are required on public transport and in retail settings, but not when people sit through performances together for hours.
The government now risks being behind both public opinion and the progress of Covid once more. It should extend mandatory masking and set out the risks of socialising inside more clearly so that people are better empowered to make their own decisions. Finally, it must address shockingly inadequate sick pay. No one disputes that those who are infected should stay at home. But people can only protect themselves when they have both the knowledge and resources to do so.