No matter what the government decides to announce, we are mired in constant risk assessment as we decide which plans to abandon just to be safe
If there’s one thing Boris Johnson wanted to achieve this year it was to “save Christmas”. Such was his commitment to the endeavour that it became the subject of parody: in mid-autumn an entire episode of the Radio 4 news comedy series The Now Show was dedicated to the policy. Whether we end up in a semi-lockdown by the end of next week or manage to share a festive table with family or friends, the game is up for the eerste minister. Christmas is already ruined.
The problem isn’t only the virus, but the psychological toll of living alongside it. It’s spreading so fast in London that I went from being boosted, and relatively relaxed, to in close contact with three people and riddled with anxiety in a matter of hours yesterday.
It’s been two years since the first reports of Covid-19 emerged. And it’s been 21 months since we started adjusting our lives to accommodate our varying levels of risk, making constant careful calculations. It’s utterly exhausting, and the nation’s mental health stands on a precipice. Johnson knows this, and that’s why he’s been clinging so hard to the festive season. We are all desperate for a break from having to think about Covid.
The problem is uncertainty. Humans can cope with almost anything as long as we know what it is that we face. In this case, the target is ever moving and it feels as if every plan of action we decide upon (and as a population, concede to play our part in delivering) is undermined in a matter of months. On a biological level, that is just the nature of viral transmission and mutation, but we feel constantly wrongfooted because of something else: our lack of trust in decision-makers.
On public confidence, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers dominate the discussion, but they are a minority. I’m not underplaying the significance of the cost to the health service of the unimmunised who end up hospitalised with Covid-19, maar steeds, the majority of people in Britain understand the risk of this virus, are vaccinated, and continue to be community-minded in their attitudes. The long queues of younger people outside vaccination stations, keen to receive their booster dose as quickly as possible, reveals that.
Vir meeste, that lack of trust, that feeling of constant uncertainty, comes from a very reasonable response to being led through the pandemic by a splintered government that is unable to agree within itself on the best action to take, and whose ability to communicate essential information to an anxious public is hindered by its inability to follow its own guidelines.
In the last week, we have seen a significant rebellion within the governing party against its own leadership; two resignations – one political, one civil – over the breaking of Covid mixing rules this time last year; photographic evidence that the prime minister himself broke his own guidelines on socialising; and an announcement about the need for close contacts of positive coronavirus cases to take daily lateral flow tests, followed immediately by an inability for anyone in England to order lateral flow test kits. Then all adults were promised a booster dose by the end of the month, while very vulnerable people such as pregnant women were unable to secure a vaccination appointment because they hadn’t been prioritised in the rush to beat omikron. We can’t be blamed for concluding that the political need to “save Christmas” was the guiding hand behind these decisions. If Johnson was still “following the science”, we’d have seen action a week ago.
So, as we enter the last week of advent, we have an estimated 300,000 new infections a day (we don’t have enough PCR testing available to confirm this), and doubling every other day. Well over a million of us are likely to be carrying, if not suffering from, omicron over Christmas.
With this knowledge, we’re left to make our own decisions. We weigh it all up. We know it might be wise to ban household mixing at this point, but that our prime minister has neither the authority nor the willingness to do so. We don’t yet know enough about the omicron variant to be able to establish our levels of risk of hospitalisation or death – for example, are the eldest or youngest now more at risk? We know how exposed we have been over the last week, what we plan or need to do in the coming days. And we decide for ourselves. How should we celebrate Christmas? With whom? What plans shall we abandon now, just to be safe?
We are mired in constant risk assessment, anxieties underlying every choice. There is no respite from the psychological toll of the pandemic. However we each decide to spend the next fortnight, for Johnson, Christmas is already lost. With the North Shropshire by-election just hours away, it may only be the start of his losing streak.