AAnother day, another round of bad covid numbers, and another hodgepodge of mixed messages from Boris Johnson. Ever since the threat of the Omicron variant emerged, the UK government has hedged its bets on how seriously it should be taken. The semi-reputable reason is that the data on the variant and its impact is not yet clear; things will be better in two weeks. The totally unsavory reason is that he takes avoidable risks with life and health for political reasons. This week, the government accelerated the rollout of the booster vaccine; Thursday he announced the purchase of 114 million new doses. Yet he has also gone a mile to give clear guidance to the public on how to react over the Christmas period. On Thursday it happened again, twice.
First Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, one of Mr Johnson’s most independent-minded ministers, told an interviewer that smooching under the mistletoe with strangers should be avoided for health reasons. She was quickly disavowed by Downing Street for interfering in the decisions she sublets to private individuals (but not for forgetting that the people you know and kiss can also be carriers). Then Science Minister George Freeman, one of the more sensible voices in government, said he was against big Christmas parties this year and that his department had canceled its own. A few hours later, Downing Street dried it too.
It is a hopeless approach. It has all the intellectual coherence of “Go to work. Don’t go to work. Go outside. don’t go out mocked by comedian Matt Lucas 18 months ago. This confuses the public’s mind on how to behave. People “shouldn’t cancel things”, said Mr. Johnson with his eye on the front page of the Daily Mail. Yet many are already doing it because they rightly don’t trust the message or the messenger.
Ambivalence also gives permission to the minority to behave irresponsibly. This is all a deliberate policy and not an oversight. Mr Johnson knows that there is a serious threat from Omicron and the other active variants. But he’s too scared to face it.
There are several reasons for this irresponsible approach. Mr Johnson is by temperament a rule breaker, not a rule maker. He is also afraid of the dozens of Tory backbenchers who have become serial rebels in the House of Commons and threaten his majority. He is under serious pressure from business interests – particularly the hospitality and travel industries – to prioritize their businesses over public health, a position supported by the Treasury. Plus, he hates being pilloried by the tabloid press that once favored the threat to Christmas. And he sees his grades dropping, so he’s terrified of doing anything he thinks is unpopular or helping Nigel Farage rise from the political grave.
This adds up to a despicable way to run the country. The consolation is that Mr Johnson is gradually being discovered, albeit too slowly. Stories about packed Christmas parties in Downing Street last year have crossed over this week because they speak to a larger scandal. They point out that while the public is obeying the rules, Mr Johnson is ignoring them. He always does. That’s what his sidekick Dominic Cummings did. Emmanuel Macron reportedly told his aides this week that Mr Johnson was a gougnafy – a good for nothing. Thereupon, the president is at the rendezvous.