We’re not back into lockdown, of course, or anything even vaguely resembling it yet. Instead we are tumbling once again down the rabbit hole of uncertainty, into that wearily familiar world where every plan feels made to be potentially broken.
It’s back to the constant pinging of WhatsApp groups, just wondering if everyone’s still comfortable with the plan for getting together at the weekend; back to the Covid-era maths of counting backwards from whichever social highlight you really don’t want to miss this Christmas and then strategically cancelling anything in the run-up that might risk you getting infected, which explains why some firms are now scrapping the office party. Who wants to end up sadly self-isolating on Christmas Day, just for the sake of a night making awkward small talk with the boss?
Unless, that is, you work in Downing Street, where aides were allegedly popping corks last December as intensive care beds were filling up. No 10 insists that reports of after-work drinking sessions featuring secret Santas, Christmas quizzes and letting off steam into the small hours were all within the rules that banned social gatherings at the time, which suggests it was defining parties in much the same creative way that Bill Clinton defined sex during the Monica Lewinsky episode. Parties are what other people were getting fined £10,000 for having. A few dozen people boozing in a packed room – well, that’s just government.
How reassuring it is to know those responsible are still in charge as we head back into another fraught winter. Meanwhile, for those working in the NHS, or running a small business that wouldn’t survive another lockdown, or remembering how they struggled with their mental health during that last lonely winter, the knotted dread in the pit of the stomach is back.
Since we still know so little about the Omicron variant of Covid-19 currently causing exponential growth in South Africa, the hope remains that all this could still be a false alarm. Perhaps it really will turn out to be less infectious than feared, at least in a highly vaccinated country such as Britain, or else a cause of mild infections only. It could be weeks before we know whether it really is the big one – the mutation scientists always half-expected to come along and make a mockery of our confidence that the pandemic was over – or just another damp squib. But until we know, the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, is right to warn against snogging under the mistletoe.
Whatever happens with Omicron, the underlying reality is that Britain is still surfing into winter on a wave of existing Covid infections with all the red lights on NHS dashboards flashing. The sight of ambulances queueing outside A&E is a telltale symptom of a hospital system struggling to cope with both a backlog of non-Covid cases and a growing crisis in social care, meaning frail elderly patients can’t be discharged because they have nowhere else to go. (Stopping people having to sell their houses to fund care, still the centrepiece of the government’s reforms, feels like the least of anyone’s problems this winter.) The scenario most likely to prompt more restrictions now isn’t mass Covid deaths but rising infections causing the NHS to buckle under pressure, which would risk people dying from lack of prompt medical care for all sorts of otherwise treatable illnesses or accidents. But that’s a more abstract threat than the visceral fear of a killer virus, and more complicated for public health experts to convey.
Last week, after riots in Holland at the prospect of lockdown there, Chris Whitty told the Local Government Association that his biggest worry now was whether “we can still take people with us” if further restrictions were needed.
On the surface, that seems surprising. Time and time again, Britons have proved more willing to put up with drastic constraints on their lives than anyone could have imagined. Polling shows that the handful of noisy keyboard warriors moaning this week about the return of masks in shops and on public transport are woefully at odds with the public mood. But if more painful restrictions were needed this winter, there are reasons to think it would be an uglier argument this time round.
Before the vaccine, millions were genuinely afraid either of dying from Covid, or inadvertently killing those we loved. But the jab has made us bolder, and that’s what makes this winter different from the last. This time, a government trying to shut down pubs, restaurants or socialising would be grappling not just with exhaustion – the sense that people are tired of living like this – but anger from those who were repeatedly told that vaccination would set them free. They did their bit and got their jabs, so why should they sit around watching their livelihoods go to the wall, just because the virus still poses a very real threat to those who stubbornly refused the vaccine?
The current wave of Covid-19 surging in Europe has seen a growing backlash emerging against unvaccinated people, the most obvious scapegoats for the fact that the virus still hasn’t gone away, and this is increasingly seeping into policy. In Austria, unvaccinated people were locked down last month while everyone else enjoyed their freedom. In Latvia, lawmakers who refuse the vaccine have been barred from voting on new laws and taking part in debates. In Singapore, unjabbed individuals are told they’ll have to pay for their hospital treatment, effectively a punishment for not doing the responsible thing. Here, such naked discrimination still seems as unthinkable as refusing to treat smokers for lung cancer; it’s a core principle of medicine that doctors treat all comers without judgment, no matter how distressed they may get about having to cancel much-needed operations because ICU beds are full of Covid patients realising too late they should have got the vaccine.
But if new restrictions prove necessary, either to suppress Omicron or whatever variant comes next, don’t be surprised if there is a backlash against the idea that vaccinated and unvaccinated people should all be in it together – especially if the Treasury proves reluctant to offer the kind of generous support that cushioned the pain of past lockdowns.
All this, of course, still feels very theoretical now. Many South Africans were baffled by the rest of the world’s heightened reaction to Omicron, and maybe in a few weeks’ time we too will look back and feel sheepish for worrying. But whatever happens, it would be wise to start thinking now about the shifting dilemmas of the post-vaccinated era, and to stay one step ahead not just of the virus itself but of its uncanny ability to disrupt and confound. For almost two years, the pandemic has been tearing up much of what we thought we knew about the way a modern economy and society functions. It may not be done with disconcerting us just yet.