As Attention Turns To Covid Boosters, What Other Measures Could Tackle Omicron | Coronavirus


The ministers’ goal may be a “national mission” to roll out booster vaccines to counter the dramatic rise in the Omicron variant, but the government has not ruled out further restrictions for England. Here we take a look at the options on the table, their effectiveness in reducing the spread of the coronavirus, and the level of political risk for Boris Johnson.

Mandatory isolation for all contacts close to the Covid

Efficiency: 4/5

Starting Tuesday, fully vaccinated contacts of people with confirmed Covid are asked to take a lateral flow test (LFT) every day for a week but do not have to self-isolate. Thus, half of a couple can continue to go to the pub even if the partner they live with has Covid. And, while a positive LFT is a good indication that an individual is infected, a negative result does not mean that they are not. With two Covid injections offering little protection against infection by Omicron and households a key arena for transmission, requiring all contacts to be isolated for seven or 10 days could have a big impact – if followed. But not all infections or contacts are identified, so the approach has limitations.

Political risk: 3/5

The ministers will be very reluctant to open the door when the “pingdemia” returns. In July, as cases grew rapidly, the government was forced to offer special quarantine exemptions and set up mass testing centers at workplaces, to avoid disruptions to key public services. If Omicron creates a “tidal wave” of cases, stricter isolation rules could cause significant disruption. For this reason, Conservative members would hate him. 3/5

Social distancing imposed in shops, reception areas and workplaces

Efficiency: 2/5

Keeping a distance helps, but with a large body of evidence showing that Covid undergoes airborne transmission, ventilation is also crucial. According to a study by researchers at Cambridge University and Imperial College London, in poorly ventilated spaces, the coronavirus can spread over 2m in seconds. Social distancing is also not possible in all workplaces, and those who can work from home have already been advised to do so.

Political risk: 3/5

The reintroduction of social distancing would not only be unpopular with conservative libertarians, it would trigger immediate appeals for financial aid from the Treasury. Pubs, restaurants and theaters had to reduce the number of customers they could serve when a distance rule was in place, as well as invest in signage and other equipment. The return to the 1m-plus or 2m rule might seem like a dramatic setback for the weary audience.

Covid passports – including boosters – for all public places in the New Year

Efficiency: 2/5

Omicron’s ability to evade vaccines to a greater extent than the Delta variant means that those vaccinated could still transmit infections despite a Covid certificate, albeit with boosters offering greater protection. Some also fear that vaccine passports will lead to discrimination or exacerbate inequalities. Experts have found that vaccine passports work best where vaccine uptake is low (it is high across the UK) and they are unlikely to convince anti-vaccines to get bitten. Their impact on transmission is probably greatest when circulating Covid levels are low.

Political risk: 4/5

Many Tory MPs vehemently oppose having to show ID (although they appear to be applying the principle selectively: many recently voted in favor of voter ID). Any expansion of the Covid certificate policy would be even more unpopular with backbenchers than this week’s Plan B, and the government would almost certainly need Labor support to pass it. The reaction from voters is less clear, although many have already happily used the NHS Covid pass to attend big events.

Hotel closures or outdoor rule only

Efficiency: 3/5

Previous waves of Covid have seen outbreaks linked to environments such as bars and restaurants while experts have noted that alcohol can make people less careful in their interactions with others. Serving outdoors only can reduce transmission, but gatherings after Christmas can lessen the impact of this measure.

Political risk: 4/5

Again, this would lead to calls for urgent financial safeguards for affected businesses, especially if it happens before Christmas. After weeks of Christmas ad campaigns based on 2021 to compensate for last year, voters are also likely to react with despondency. It’s unclear whether they would blame Johnson personally, but the revelations about the anti-lockdown parties in No.10 don’t seem to have helped.

School closures for all except the children of key workers

Efficiency: 3/5

Covid infections have spread to schools, and data has shown that when classrooms are closed, for example for a semester, Covid cases drop – perhaps in part due to less testing, but probably also because of a reduced mixture. But school closings are based on the assumption that infections move from children to older groups. If infection levels are already high in other age groups, or if two jabs are – as the data suggests – less protective against infection with Omicron, school closures may have less impact than for previous waves. More work is needed on the risk of children becoming infected or developing serious illness with Omicron, but there are also mental health considerations when it comes to school closures.

Political risk: 5/5

The government has repeatedly said that school closures are a last resort in the pandemic. Robert Halfon, conservative chairman of the education select committee, said on Monday that they “have already had a devastating impact on the education and mental health of young people – we must not allow this to happen again”. No vote in parliament is needed, so backbench rebels can’t defeat any plan – but they could blame Boris Johnson. As are the exhausted teachers, and the parents whose capacity for work is compromised.

Lockdown: limit gatherings and impose restrictions on departures from home

Efficiency: 5/5

If contacts are reduced, the spread of the virus will slow down, giving people more time to get reminders and reducing the risk that large numbers of people will need medical attention at the same time. But it is not clear how heavy such measures would have to be to have a sufficient effect. And there are downsides, including the mental health impact of such restrictions.

Political risk: 5/5

Even before a slew of anti-containment and deeply damaging Christmas holiday allegations engulfed the government, Downing Street was desperate to avoid restrictions on socialization this winter. The audience was largely stoic and compliant with the winter of 2020, when the Delta variant led to last-minute limits on Christmas contacts. But many Conservative MPs believe voters would no longer take so much.


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