Ministers’ focus may be a “national mission” to roll out booster vaccines to counter the dramatic rise of the Omicron variant, but the government has not ruled out new restrictions for England. Here we look at options on the table, how effective they could be at reducing the spread of coronavirus and the level of political risk for Boris Johnson.
Mandatory isolation for all close Covid contacts
From Tuesday, fully vaccinated contacts of people with confirmed Covid are asked to take a lateral flow test (LFT) every day for a week but do not have to self-isolate. So one half of a couple can keeping going to the pub even if the partner they live with has Covid. And, while a positive LFT is a good indication that an individual is infected, a negative result does not mean they are not. With two Covid jabs offering little protection against infection with Omicron, and households a key arena for transmission, requiring all contacts to isolate for seven or 10 days could have a strong impact – if adhered to. But not all infections or contacts are identified, so the approach has limitations.
Political risk: 3/5
Ministers will be very wary about opening the door to the return of the “pingdemic”. In July, when cases were rising rapidly, the government was forced to offer special exemptions from quarantine, and set up mass testing centres at workplaces, to prevent interruptions in key public services. If Omicron creates a “tidal wave” of cases, stricter isolation rules could bring significant disruption. For that reason, Conservative MPs would hate it. 3/5
Social distancing imposed in shops, hospitality venues and workplaces
Keeping a distance helps, but with a large body of evidence showing Covid undergoes airborne transmission, ventilation is also crucial. According to a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, in poorly ventilated spaces the coronavirus can spread further than 2m in seconds. Social distancing is also not possible in all workplaces, and those who can work from home have already been advised to.
Political risk: 3/5
Reintroducing social distancing would not only be unpopular with Tory libertarians, it would spark immediate calls for financial aid from the Treasury. Pubs, restaurants and theatres had to slash the number of customers they could serve when a distance rule in place, as well as investing in signage and other equipment. Returning to the 1m-plus or the 2m rule could feel like a dramatic step backwards for the fatigued public.
Covid passports – including boosters – for all public venues in the new year
Omicron’s ability to evade vaccines to a greater degree than the Delta variant means vaccinated people could still pass on infections despite having a Covid certificate, albeit with boosters offering greater protection. There are also concerns that vaccine passports could lead to discrimination or exacerbate inequalities. Experts have found that vaccine passports work best where jab uptake is low (it is high across the UK) and they are unlikely to convince anti-vaxxers to get jabbed. Their impact on transmission is likely greatest when the levels of Covid circulating are low.
Political risk: 4/5
Many Conservative MPs vehemently object to the idea of having to show an identity document (though they appear to apply the principle selectively: many recently voted in favour of voter ID). Any widening of the Covid certificates policy would be even more unpopular with backbenchers than this week’s plan B package, and the government would almost certainly need Labour backing to pass it. It is less clear how voters would respond, though many have already been contentedly using the NHS Covid pass to attend large events.
Hospitality closures or an outdoors-only rule
Previous waves of Covid have seen outbreaks linked to settings such as bars and restaurants while experts have noted that alcohol can make people less cautious in their interactions with others. Making service outdoors-only may reduce transmission but back-to-back gatherings over Christmas may blunt the impact of this measure.
Political risk: 4/5
Again, this would lead to calls for urgent financial backup for affected businesses, particularly if it came before Christmas. After weeks of Christmas advertising campaigns premised on 2021 making up for last year, voters would also be likely to react with despondency. It is unclear whether they would blame Johnson personally but the revelations about lockdown-busting parties in No 10 appear unlikely to have helped.
School closures for all but the children of key workers
Covid infections have raced through schools and data has shown that when classrooms are closed, for example over half-term, Covid cases fall – possibly in part because of less testing, but likely also because of reduced mixing. But school closures are based on the assumption that infections move from children to older groups. If infection levels are already high in other age groups, or two jabs are – as data suggests – less protective against Omicron infection, closing schools may have less of an impact than for previous waves. More work is needed on the chance of children being infected or developing severe disease with Omicron but there are also mental health considerations when it comes to school closures.
Political risk: 5/5
The government has repeatedly said school closures are a last resort in the pandemic. Robert Halfon, Conservative chair of the education select committee, said on Monday that they “have already had a devastating impact on young people’s education and mental health – we must not allow this to happen again”. No vote in parliament is needed, so backbench rebels can’t scupper any plan – but they could heap blame on Boris Johnson. As may exhausted teachers, and parents whose ability to work would be hit.
Lockdown: limiting gatherings and placing restrictions on leaving home
If contacts are reduced, the spread of the virus will slow – giving more time for people to get boosters and reducing the chance of a large number of people needing medical care at once. But how heavy handed such measures would need to be to have a sufficient effect is unclear. And there are downsides, including the mental health impact of such restrictions.
Political risk: 5/5
Even before a series of deeply damaging lockdown-busting Christmas party allegations engulfed the government, Downing Street was desperate to avoid restrictions on socialising this winter. The public were largely stoical and compliant in winter 2020, when the Delta variant led to last-minute limits on Christmas contact. But many Conservative MPs believe voters would not be so accepting again.