Artillery Row

Green light for hysteria

There are times when precaution stands in the way of what is right

Everyone — from health experts to politicians, columnists to global bodies — is using the same three words to describe the new variant: “We don’t know.” While there are some tidbits of information (that the Omicron variant is highly transmissible and could evade the vaccine because of its spike protein mutations), we don’t yet know the crucial facts. Is it more deadly, will its effects be longer term, and will the vaccine provide any protection against it?

Within hours of the new variant being found in South Africa, whispers began circulating about a Boris Johnson press conference — an afternoon event that every British citizen has come to dread. On Saturday, with just three cases of Omicron present in the UK, Johnson set new restrictions on travel (mandatory PCR tests for anyone entering the UK), isolation for Omicron cases and compulsory face masks in shops and on public transport.

Despite the uncertainty over how serious this variant could be for public health, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we were back in December 2020. Although the Government seems to have reckoned with the negative effects restrictions had on a population under siege for 20 months — publishing a “lessons learned” report only two months ago — the impulse to restrict remains unchecked.

We’ve been here before. No matter how vociferously the Government reassures us that it’s only a little mask and we’ll just have to wear it for a few weeks, it can sometimes feel like our elected representatives are gaslighting us. The public has yet to forget the chaos of last year’s Christmas, in which plans were cancelled last minute and promises of a normal celebration were binned along with the turkey.

What no one seems willing to point out is that last December the vaccine rollout was in its infancy, we had no booster jab and very little immunity compared to today (ONS stats show 90 per cent of the population have some level of antibodies). While we know that protection from either infection or injection can wane, we now have access to the booster jab which not only extends the shield provided by previous vaccinations, but increases it.

The announcements of mask wearing and PCR tests might be seen as a small price to pay by the fanatics in Westminster, but they serve as a reminder that we’ve yet to return to normal life — one where the prime minister doesn’t have the power to cancel Christmas. It’s also a reminder that wishing for “normal” is enough to be branded a selfish witch by many mainstream commentators.

It feels like our elected representatives are gaslighting us

LBC’s James O’Brien sneered that “the psychology that sees people more threatened by being told to wear a mask than they are by the virus that’s killed about 150,000 people in this country alone” frustrated him. Despite going on to admit that it was entirely possible the new variant would turn out to be nothing to worry about, O’Brien scolded critics of the government’s announcements: “You haven’t lost much or sacrificed much or given up much. It’s just so whiny; it’s like a kindergarten full of recalcitrant toddlers who won’t eat their broccoli.”

What O’Brien and those cheerleading for Johnson’s “safety first” approach seem wilfully ignorant of is the fact that restrictions do cost. A mask might just be a flimsy bit of fabric that most sensible people wouldn’t mind donning when necessary, but it has become symbolic of a wider threat to our social life.

The panic caused by government announcements has led to some Christmas parties being cancelled, knocking down an already struggling hospitality industry. The announcement of expensive PCR tests may force families to cancel their Christmas trips, leaving Granny spending Christmas alone yet again. “Work from home” orders create a two-tier society of those who can send emails in their slippers and those who have to empty the bins and stock shelves — and yet there has been little criticism for Nicola Sturgeon’s calls to stay home to save Christmas.

Despite doctors — including Dr Ellie Cannon on Newsnight this week — pointing out the harms that restrictions can cause to mental and physical health, news of the Omicron variant has given mainstream commentators the green light to indulge in panic, calling for tighter, faster and longer restrictions on people’s freedom.

A cautionary approach has its place — we wear seatbelts not because we expect to rear-end fellow drivers, but because it’s better to be safe than sorry in the event of a crash. However, there are times when precaution stands in the way of what is right.

The marvel of vaccines comes from a scientific tradition of taking risks, making mistakes and pushing the boundaries of what we know to be safe and true. Safety has its place, but must not become the sole principle around which society organises itself. While we’re still in the dark about what challenges this new variant might bring, don’t pack away the Christmas lights just yet.

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