The roulette wheel is spinning, the ball already rattling towards its final destination. Boris Johnson has bet the house on his Omicron gamble and now there’s no going back. The bullishness of ministers insisting over the weekend that they see no case for further restrictions glosses over the fact that it may now be too late for that anyway, given an estimated one in 25 people in England already had the virus before New Year’s Eve.
Double or quits it is, then, as a country drags itself back out to work and school after the Christmas hibernation period. We’re about to find out exactly what it means to experience unprecedented levels of Covid infections, but from a strain that may be less dangerous, at least in the fully vaccinated. Once again, a virus we thought we’d got to know has abruptly shapeshifted and once again, history isn’t necessarily a reliable guide to the present. We’re all back on the seesaw, lurching between hope and fear, never knowing quite what to expect.
The novel threat this time is not death on the biblical scale forecast during the first wave – although sadly there will be too many deaths, hospitalisations and cases of long Covid disabling people for months to come – but knock-on chaos and disruption caused by the potential mass infection of key workers, leaving them unable to do their work. We’ve entered an unpredictable world of people who have heart attacks waiting for well over an hour for an ambulance, critical incidents being declared by hospitals that can’t maintain safe staffing levels and large organisations being warned to plan for up to a quarter of their people being off sick or self-isolating. Now imagine what that worst-case scenario might do to the everyday grind of supermarket deliveries, bin collections and bus timetables, let alone to policing or critical infrastructure such as the power and water industries.
Education ministers have meanwhile vowed to keep schools and nurseries open wherever possible – rightly given the profound impact we now know closures had on poorer children’s education, and on a vulnerable few who are sadly safer with their teachers than with their parents – but are simultaneously letting heads know they can send year groups home if they have to. For secondary schools in England and Wales hit by serious staff shortages, in practice that would probably mean prioritising GCSE and A-level classes for pupils who need to sit their mocks this term but switching to home schooling for other years if necessary, something already happening in some parts of the country before Christmas as Omicron hit.
Nurseries and primary schools catering for pupils too young to be vaccinated will meanwhile be flinging windows open to the January air and crossing their fingers, knowing that (at least according to the Office for National Statistics) about one in 15 children aged between two and 11 had Covid before Christmas. Since many key workers are also parents who can’t easily do their jobs if their child gets sent home sick, we’re probably about to be reminded that childcare is the fourth emergency service, without which the other three would struggle very quickly. In other words, it’s time to prepare ourselves at least for the possibility of things getting messy; of everyday life becoming harder and more volatile as Covid jams its spokes into wheels that in good times you barely even notice turning.
With luck, that upheaval could be mercifully brief. But any country that nearly ground to a halt overnight thanks to a temporary post-Brexit shortage of fuel tanker drivers and a panicky stampede for petrol should probably have learned by now not to get cocky. Over and over again this virus has reminded us of just how much happens unseen beneath the surface of a functioning society; of how complex our just-in-time modern lives with all their endlessly interconnected moving parts have become, but also how fragile, dependent on things and people we mostly take for granted until brutally reminded not to do so.
And that’s why learning to live with this or any other virus, the mantra of those who never want their liberties restricted by government diktat again, doesn’t mean quite what some hope it does. It’s not about ripping off your mask and gleefully forgetting that any of it ever happened, but about building in resilience and learning from the weaknesses exposed by Covid. Rubbing along successfully through what might hopefully be the tail end of a pandemic should mean investing not just in vaccines and antivirals but in more hospital beds and people to staff them, creating enough slack in the system to absorb seasonal Covid surges without having to throw up tent wards in NHS car parks. It’s going to mean well-honed contingency plans for critical industries, better ventilation in schools, and more imaginative answers to the question of protecting people who are shielding or clinically vulnerable than are so far forthcoming from lockdown sceptics bellowing that it’s time everyone was left to get on with their lives. But it may also take something of a shift in national attitudes.
Living successfully with Covid-19 will require not just a virus obliging enough not to mutate in more lethal ways but the maturity to self-police sometimes – as plenty did last month by voluntarily side-swerving parties or the pub so they could have Christmas with their families, and as Swedes have always quietly done in what was the unsung element of their country’s no-lockdown policy – and the resilience to live with a degree of unpredictability in life, which is infinitely easier said than done for some. Low-income families especially are likely to need help absorbing the sudden shocks and disruptions this virus is still capable of delivering, even as it hopefully burns itself out.
The silver lining to the Omicron cloud is, of course, that it could pass relatively quickly. It’s risky reading too much into data collected over the Christmas holidays when reporting was potentially patchy, but all hopes are now pinned on Britain following the same path as South Africa, where infections seemed to peak relatively quickly before falling back. A rocky few weeks, so the cabinet’s argument goes, beats months of economic and personal misery; better to rip the plaster off and get it over with. Whether that gamble was uncharacteristically shrewd or lethally reckless will become clear enough in the next few days as Omicron spreads from London to the rest of the UK, with hospitalisation rates doubling already across much of the north of England. But right now, the wretched roulette wheel is still spinning, and all most of us can do about it is hold our breath.