Voices: Boris Johnson can’t afford for mixed messaging over Covid to take hold again

A new Covid-19 variant was the last thing Boris Johnson wanted for Christmas but could omicron provide the firebreak that ends his terrible run in recent weeks?

The prime minister would much rather take ownership of the booster campaign than answer questions about his “Peppa Pig” speech, “Tory sleaze” or people crossing the Channel in small boats – on which he refused to speak at his press conference last night.

Some allies hope the huge booster jab effort could literally boost the prime minister who loves boosterism, while denying a revived Labour opposition media space. Ministers point out that the UK is ahead of Europe on boosters, as it was during the initial vaccine rollout. Yet Johnson cannot be sure he will get another “vaccine bounce,” which helped the Tories open a 10-point opinion poll lead by May. Now Labour has drawn level and Tory MPs admit privately voters no longer give Johnson the benefit of the doubt, as they did at the start of this year. The public may be less forgiving if things go wrong, and they are already doing so.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson’s own actions before last Christmas were in the spotlight when Keir Starmer raised reports that he hosted a Downing Street party for “dozens of people.” Johnson denied Covid rules in force at the time had been broken, but did not deny an event took place.

This all plays into the idea that the government is again sending the mixed messages that have plagued it throughout the pandemic. When ministers appointed Jenny Harries as chief executive of the new UK Health Security Agency, the former deputy chief medical officer for England was well qualified – but one factor was that she was thought unlikely to ruffle the feathers of her political masters. They had previously shot the messenger by abolishing Public Health England, the agency’s predecessor; it was widely seen too independent-minded for ministers and was an early scapegoat for mistakes made when the pandemic broke out.

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Now Harries has given Johnson a headache by saying people should restrict unnecessary socialising in the Christmas period. She was, of course, speaking common sense. But it was not the pre-Christmas headline Johnson wanted, so he dismissed Harries’ advice. With an eye on the short-term, he grabbed positive tabloid headlines today (“PM: don’t cancel your Xmas” – Daily Mail). In a round of interviews today, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, praised Harries’s professionalism but told the public to follow the government’s official guidance rather than what she was saying. “The job of government is to listen to expert advice and then make a balanced and proportionate judgment,” he insisted.

However, the poor communications that have previously sowed confusion over wearing masks and working from home will not help secure public support for the latest measures. Some people will do what Javid wants by using “common sense” and following Harries’ advice; the hospitality sector is reporting that some events are already being cancelled.

The suspicion at Westminster is that Harries let slip the advice that would become official if the new variant is judged to pose a serious threat. Similarly, Johnson is keeping up his sleeve the obvious card of advising people to work from home where possible. That is already in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and should be implemented in England immediately.

The prime minister appears to be holding back so he can announce measures short of significant social distancing measures if the prognosis on Omicron in about two weeks is a gloomy one.

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Why? He is again under pressure from lockdown sceptic Tory MPs, more than 30 of whom opposed the minimalist new restrictions for England in the Commons yesterday. They will press for parliament’s Christmas break, due to start on 16 December, to be delayed so MPs get a vote on renewing the measures and are alarmed that the self-isolation rules will last until next March. With his grip over his party weakened by his recent mistakes – A barb over Labour’s “factional infighting” at PMQs rang a little hollow – Johnson will be more worried about his Tory critics than others who argue he is not going far enough. That includes Labour, which rightly wants people to take pre-departure tests before arriving in the UK.

Johnson knows that for the second year running, he might have to change his tune and impose tougher rules just before Christmas. A mixture of luck and courage meant his decision to relax controls in July paid off but he might not be so lucky this time.

The huge booster jab campaign will put overstretched hospitals and GPs under even more pressure during an already difficult winter; the government’s scientific advisers are warning there could be a significant rise in Covid infections and hospitalisations because of omicron. Catch-up treatment could again be a casualty. The National Audit Office spending watchdog warns today that waiting lists in England could double to 12 million by 2025.

This time, the vaccination campaign might not give Johnson the shot in the arm he needs to restore his political fortunes.

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