Boris Johnson was on Wednesday lauded by Tory MPs for keeping the economy open amid the Omicron wave of coronavirus infections, even as new data laid bare the spread of the disease across England.
The prime minister, addressing MPs for the first time since the Christmas break, confirmed he would not introduce new Covid-19 restrictions in England beyond the relatively modest “plan B” measures already in place.
Johnson would have faced a massive Conservative rebellion — including from within his cabinet — if he had pushed for new curbs to control a virus which had infected one in 15 people in England in the final week of December.
Johnson’s decision to avoid new restrictions was “commended” in the House of Commons by Theresa May, former prime minister, while Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary, said: “The prime minister was right to hold his nerve.”
Steve Baker, deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown sceptic Conservative MPs, tweeted: “Credit to Boris Johnson for resisting calls for further restrictions over the Christmas period — the data since has proved this to be the right decision.”
Some Conservatives are not so sure and believe that Johnson’s “gamble” — driven by pressure from Tory MPs opposed to further restrictions — could backfire if NHS hospitals are overwhelmed later this month.
One former cabinet minister said: “If the NHS falls over, he’s in serious trouble. But at the moment there isn’t the same mood of crisis that there was just before Christmas.”
Johnson suffered the largest Tory parliamentary rebellion since he became 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 on Wednesday to stick with the plan B restrictions — notably guidance to work from home, mask-wearing in public places, and the Covid passes for large events.
The prime minister said the measures will be reviewed before they expire on January 26 and claimed that if Labour had been in charge the country would have spent the festive season under sweeping restrictions.
One minister said the mood in cabinet was “confident” that the government had taken the right decision, but added there was a recognition that January would be “tough” for the NHS.
Johnson said that with more than 200,000 Covid-19 cases reported across the UK on Tuesday, the country was experiencing “the fastest growth in Covid cases that we have known”.
“Potentially of greatest concern, case rates are now rapidly rising among the older and more vulnerable, including doubling every week among those over 60, with the obvious risk that this will continue to increase the pressures on our NHS,” he added.
On Wednesday, the UK recorded more than 194,000 Covid cases in the latest 24 hour period.
Johnson has been reassured by studies suggesting the Omicron variant is milder than previous strains of coronavirus, with fewer people ending up in intensive care units.
However, an estimated 3.7m Britons were infected with Covid-19 at the end of December, the highest number of weekly infections recorded throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics.
One in 15 people in England had the virus in the week to December 31. The equivalent figure was one in 20 people in Wales and Scotland, while in Northern Ireland it was one in 25.
Sarah Croft, head of analytical outputs for the ONS infection survey, said there were “early signs of a potential slowing of infections in London in the days before new year’s eve”. “However, it is too early to suggest this is a change in trend overall,” she added.
More than 20 NHS hospital trusts have declared critical incidents amid the Omicron wave, according to Downing Street. Trusts are grappling with mounting Covid admissions and worsening staff shortages.
All 17 hospitals across Greater Manchester have meanwhile announced they are cancelling non-urgent surgery.
Ministers believe the NHS will be through the worst of the Omicron surge later this month and Johnson will then face pressure from Conservative MPs to end the plan B measures when they expire on January 26.
“Where’s the exit strategy from restrictions?” asked Mark Harper, former Tory chief whip and chair of the Covid Recovery Group. “We can’t go on like this.”
Even if Johnson’s Omicron gamble pays off — and the NHS is not massively disrupted by a surge of hospitalisations — many Conservative MPs are still unhappy with the prime minister.
Some on the Tory right see Johnson’s previous willingness to lock down the economy during the pandemic as a sign of his “un-Conservative” instincts. They also rail against his perceived big-state, high-tax approach to government.
The prime minister faces two problematic reports in the coming days: one on the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment and the second a probe into allegedly illicit government Christmas parties during Covid restrictions in late 2020.
But Downing Street is more fearful about the political fallout of a cost of living crisis, with inflation above 5 per cent, energy prices soaring and tax rises kicking in at the start of April.
“The local elections are key,” said one Tory MP yesterday, referring to a series of polls across the country on May 5 that are seen by some in the party as a referendum on Johnson’s performance. “If we do really badly, then he could be in trouble.”