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Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson. Photo: Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Johnson’s authority is diminishing among both the public and his own MPs faster than Omicron is spreading, writes Terina Hine

Tuesday: the much anticipated Tory rebellion, over 200,000 daily Covid cases and the last day you could test positive for Covid and be out of quarantine in time for Christmas. So it’s a good job Dominic Raab told us to expect Christmas as normal, otherwise we might have been worried.

Tuesday was also the day Chris Whitty warned the Cabinet the NHS would collapse in four weeks unless more was done. And it was the day a Tory leadership challenge became a real possibility, as the PM faced a massive parliamentary defeat.

Omicron is now the dominant Covid variant in London, by the end the week it will be dominant throughout the country, and by Christmas there may be 1 million new cases a day. According to Whitty, by mid-January hospitals will be so overwhelmed by Omicron and staff shortages that some will have to close.

In response, Tory rebels accused the government of spreading scare stories to gain support for the Covid regulations announced last week but voted on today. Of course this is possible - but as Nicola Sturgeon announced new measures in Scotland setting limits on household mixing over Christmas, and independent scientists call ever louder for more restrictions - it is likely the stories are real.

The PM is in trouble with his party and is despised by the public. The rebellion did materialise with 99 Tories voting against the government signifying the biggest rift in the party since Johnson became Prime Minister. The government was only able to win the vote because Starmer backed the government - Labour got the Tories over the line.

The official opposition, although rising in the polls, has done so on the back of Tory scandals rather than as a result of any positive policy ideas, or actual opposition. When given the opportunity today to challenge the Tory approach to the pandemic they chose to fully back the government’s Covid Plan B and failed to push for any meaningful amendments. They proposed nothing for schools or for improving sick pay and failed to oppose vaccine passports and mandatory vaccination for NHS workers.

So we are left 100% dependent on vaccinations with the grave knowledge that this alone will not hold back the super spreader Omicron, and with a parliamentary opposition that chose to not deliver a decisive blow to the government, nor stop its draconian erosion of civil liberties which will do nothing to stop the spread of the virus.

Failing on every front

On Monday 500,000 jabs were administered - impressive, but only half the government’s daily target. The snaking queues around vaccination centres show the fault lies not with a hesitant public but with a programme that has taken weeks to get off the ground. Johnson’s booster announcements are reminiscent of our “world-beating” test and trace system - overpromised and underdelivered. At best it will be a few weeks into January before the roll out is complete - not the end of the month as the PM claimed - and then there’s the 1-2 weeks before immunity takes effect.

And what about our children? The debate and rebellion in Parliament today did nothing to address the situation in England’s schools where 1 in 30 primary school pupils were absent because of Covid last week.

Somewhere along the line those under 18 have been forgotten - remember the days when kids couldn’t catch Covid, or couldn’t transmit, or just didn’t get sick? It seems the government hasn't really moved on. And although it’s imperative to try to keep schools open, when more and more teachers and pupils are testing positive, it really is difficult. 

The JCVI have yet to approve Covid vaccines for those under 12, and in secondary schools most pupils have only received one vaccination - pretty meaningless against catching or transmitting Omicron. In this we are a European outlier.

While Johnson bangs on about boosters - the kids remain un-jabbed, mixing in groups of 30+, maskless and in predominantly unventilated classrooms. The result - whole year groups are being sent home and thousands of pupils are missing school. Some become seriously ill. What will happen in January is anyone’s guess - let’s just hope it’s not a repeat of last year’s farce.

No one wants schools to close, but to keep them open requires action. Action on ventilation, action on mask wearing, action on isolation protocols and action on vaccination. None of which the government is doing.

And then there’s sick pay. The pandemic has been going for almost two years. For almost two years public health officials and trade unions have repeatedly called for sick pay to be fixed. Without it testing and isolation simply will not happen. Yet the UK’s sick pay remains one of the lowest in Europe. How can workers be expected to test twice per week, as is currently advised, if they then can’t feed their family when the the result is positive? 

With Johnson’s authority diminishing among both the public and his own MPs faster than Omicron is spreading, the chance of England getting to grips with the latest stage of the pandemic is rapidly receding. The opportunity for Labour to intervene has been squandered, and if/when the PM recognises tougher constraints are required, will he dare implement them and risk the wrath of even more of his parliamentary party?

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