Covid: Government to make Christmas decision on 18 December

18 December is the date ringed in red in Westminster – not the date for Christmas parties, but the time by which people should start to know how different their festive plans may look.

For this government it is quite an inauspicious date, just a day before soaring cases forced Boris Johnson to finally put the brakes on Christmas mixing plans last year and tell most families they would be spending celebrations apart.

And it is also the day Downing Street is said by insiders to have hosted a staff party while the country was under strict restrictions on social contact.

But there is a difference in the personnel around the table making the call this year: Steve Barclay and Sajid Javid have replaced Michael Gove and Matt Hancock ,who were the key voices for caution last December.

Gove was a particular champion of vaccination certification and more sceptical of calls for returns to the office, while Hancock spoke forcefully on the pressures the NHS could experience. All of those contributions appear absent from the debate now.

Johnson and Javid are both firm believers that a pact was made with the public that the vaccine was the way out of the pandemic – so the government has directed its firepower into turbocharging the booster vaccine campaign.

Javid will also direct the NHS to offer new antiviral treatment to the most vulnerable to take at home if they have a positive diagnosis, rather than wait to be hospitalised with the virus.

One Sage adviser described that tactic this week as “all the eggs in one basket” with hopes pinned almost entirely on scientific intervention to halt the spread of the variant, rather than human behaviour.

But this time there is also a significant difference in the public mood. There is public support for the measures the government has introduced so far – a tight regime at the border and also mask-wearing in shops.

But most adults in England are unwilling to return to full lockdown rules, according to the latest polling from YouGov, which found 68% were against closing pubs and 56% were not in favour of the return of limited numbers at gatherings.

On those issues, the public has not moved significantly since the new variant’s discovery, suggesting there is a degree of fatigue about more bad Covid news.

Ministers pledged measures introduced to halt the spread of the Omicron variant would be reviewed three weeks from when new mask-wearing and testing requirements were introduced.

In part, that was to placate Conservative MPs who bristled at the return of face coverings, and Johnson will need to return to parliament before the Christmas recess to ask for a renewed mandate on them or the rules will expire on 20 December. It will mean ministers must make that final call the previous weekend.

In practice, Number 10 could introduce new rules on social distancing or home working earlier than the official review date. In between, there are plenty of social events planned across the country, including in Westminster.

For now, the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, said people can attend their office party or share a mince pie with elderly relatives. But tellingly, he said his own staff would not be holding a party themselves but would, instead, get together in small teams.


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