Johnson boxed in by U.K. Tory refuseniks as omicron surges
Boris Johnson is being squeezed from both sides of the argument over how to tackle a "staggering" surge in Covid-19 omicron infections -- and that could have dangerous implications for the U.K.
The prime minister suffered the biggest Conservative rebellion of his tenure late Tuesday, as 100 members of Parliament opposed his strategy for clamping down on the new coronavirus variant. Many accused Johnson of going too far, too soon when so much still remains unknown about the new variant.
At the same time, warnings are growing that the sheer number of infections expected -- Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that scientists have never seen Covid-19 spread so fast -- mean the National Health Service is again at risk of being overwhelmed unless ministers take tougher action.
There were almost 60,000 new confirmed Covid-19 cases in the U.K. on Tuesday, though the number of daily omicron infections was estimated to be 200,000 as of Monday, with the rate doubling every two to three days.
"It's probably the most significant threat we've had since the start of the pandemic," U.K. Health Security Agency Chief Executive Officer Jenny Harries told the House of Commons Transport Committee on Wednesday. "The numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we've seen in cases for previous variants."
Measures brought in with the help of opposition votes on Tuesday include Covid passes to gain entry to nightclubs and other venues, an expansion of mandatory mask-wearing, and compulsory vaccination for NHS workers.
Johnson's Tories "won't vote for basic public health measures," Labour Party leader Keir Starmer told the House of Commons on Wednesday. "If it wasn't for Labour votes, his government wouldn't have been able to introduce vital health measures we need to save lives and protect the NHS."
With Johnson's party making clear where it stands on Covid restrictions, the prime minister could find his options limited even if the pandemic demands it. The government may find previous steps it has taken -- closing hospitality venues, limiting the size of gatherings or even lockdowns -- off the table.
Johnson's spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters on Wednesday "there are no plans to go beyond what Parliament voted for yesterday."
The measures many Tories objected to -- including Covid passes to gain entry into nightclubs and face coverings in public spaces -- are mild compared to other European countries. Austria was in lockdown until Sunday, while France has shut down nightclubs for four weeks. Germany's new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has backed the introduction of mandatory vaccinations.
Johnson would potentially face a more serious fallout, and possibly even a leadership challenge, if he tries to make MPs support new curbs in future.
Johnson will be wary of taking additional action, especially over Christmas after the disruption last year. In addition to the measures voted through on Tuesday, the government is primarily relying on a program of vaccine boosters to get the country through the crisis.
But with omicron infections doubling in less than two days in parts of the country, and its severity and ability to evade vaccines still unclear, there are already calls from doctors for the government to take more action.
"The fact that we are much more immune than we were generally means that the virus will appear to be much less severe," Graham Medley, a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told BBC radio. "But the numbers of infections means that even though individually we're at less risk, at a population level the number of people ending up in hospital could get very large."
One option for Johnson could be to take the approach of Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who issued guidance on Tuesday to limit household mixing over Christmas. Doing so would avoid the risk of another parliamentary rebellion, though Johnson would still likely face the wrath of some Tories when they return from the holiday period in January.
Defending the government's approach during the morning media round on Wednesday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said ministers are trying to make a "judgment" about how far to go and how quickly.
"The one thing we know about coronavirus is it's typically better to act sooner," he told LBC Radio. Still, "No one wants to curtail freedoms."