Boris Johnson was praised on Wednesday by Tory lawmakers for keeping the economy open amid a omicron wave of coronavirus infection, even as new data is revealed spread of disease across England.
Addressing lawmakers for the first time since the Christmas holidays, the prime minister confirmed that he would not impose new Covid-19 restrictions in England outside relatively modest “Plan B” measures. already in place.
Johnson would have faced a massive riot by conservatives – including within his cabinet – had he advocated new measures to control a virus that has infected one in 15 people in England in the last week of December.
Johnson’s decision to avoid new restrictions was “praised” in the House of Commons by Theresa May, former prime minister, while Jeremy Hunt, former health minister, said: “The prime minister was right to keep his nerves.”
Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Conservation Group’s Conservation Advocacy Group, wrote on Twitter: “Thanks to Boris Johnson for resisting calls for further restrictions during the Christmas period – data from then on shows this is the right decision.”
Some conservatives aren’t so sure, and believe Johnson’s “gambling” – spurred on by pressure from Tory lawmakers who oppose further restrictions – could have the opposite effect if NHS hospitals are flooded later this month.
A former cabinet minister said: “If the NHS falls, he is in serious trouble. But at the moment there is not the same crisis mood that was just before Christmas. “
Johnson experienced the biggest Tory parliamentary revolt since becoming prime minister in the middle of last month when about 100 Conservative MPs voted against his plan for Covid passports for mass events.
Johnson’s cabinet agreed Wednesday that it adheres to the limitations of Plan B – in particular guidelines for working from home, wearing masks in public places and Covid passes for major events.
The prime minister said the measures would be revised before they expire on January 26th and argued that if Labor had been at the helm, the country would have spent the holiday season under strict restrictions.
One minister said the mood in the government was “confident” that the government had made the right decision, but added that there was recognition that January would be “difficult” for the NHS.
Johnson said that with more than 200,000 Covid-19 cases reported across the UK on Tuesday, the country is experiencing “the fastest growth in Covid cases we know of”.
“Potentially the biggest concern, the rate of illness is now rising rapidly among the elderly and vulnerable, including doubling every week among those over 60, with the obvious risk that this will continue to increase pressure on our NHS,” he added.
On Wednesday, the UK recorded more than 194,000 cases of Covid in the last 24 hours.
Johnson was convinced by studies suggesting that the Omicron variant is milder than previous coronavirus strains, with fewer people ending up in intensive care units.
However, it is estimated that 3.7 million Britons were infected with Covid-19 in late December, the highest number of weekly infections recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics.
One in 15 people in England had the virus in the week leading up to 31 December. The equivalent figure was one in 20 in Wales and Scotland, while in Northern Ireland it was one in 25.
Sarah Croft, head of analytical results for the ONS Infection Survey, said there were “early signs of a potential slowdown in infections in London in the days before New Year’s Eve”. “However, it is too early to suggest that this is a total reversal of the trend,” she added.
More than 20 NHS hospital funds have declared critical incidents amid the Omicron wave, according to Downing Street. The foundations are struggling with an increasing number of Covid receipts and a growing shortage of staff.
All 17 hospitals across Greater Manchester, meanwhile, have announced they are canceling emergency surgeries.
Ministers believe the NHS will experience Omicron’s worst rise later this month, and Johnson will then face pressure from conservative lawmakers to suspend Plan B measures when they expire on January 26th.
“Where’s the strategy to get out of the constraint?” asked Mark Harper, former Tory whip chief and president of the Covid Recovery Group. “We can’t go on like this.”
Even if Johnson’s gamble with Omicron pays off – and the NHS isn’t massively disrupted by a rush of hospitalizations – many Conservative MPs are still unhappy with the prime minister.
Some on the Tory right see Johnson’s previous willingness to close the economy during the pandemic as a sign of his “non-conservative” instincts. They also oppose his perceived approach to high-tax government of a large state.
In the coming days, the Prime Minister is facing two problematic reports: one about financing his renovation of an apartment on Downing Street and another investigation into the alleged illicit government Christmas parties during the Covid limit in late 2020.
But Downing Street is more afraid of the political consequences of the cost of living crisis, with inflation above 5 percent, energy prices are rising and the tax increase begins in early April.
“Local elections are crucial,” a Tory MP said yesterday, referring to a series of polls across the country on May 5 that some in the party see as a referendum on Johnson’s performance. “If we’re really bad, then he could be in trouble.”