Winter is here and déjà vu is beginning to settle in.
As the days grow shorter, and the wind colder, the shadow of another lockdown looms over the festive period. Omicron, a new variant of concern, is sweeping Europe, work Christmas parties are being cancelled and families are debating how many people should sit around the dinner table – an eerie echo of last year’s very unhappy Christmas.
Despite the similarities, the country has transformed in the past 12 months and vaccines have allowed an almost complete return to normality. While Britons last year debated whether a scotch egg constituted a “substantial meal” to allow them to enjoy a pint at the pub, they can now enjoy packed football stadiums, music festivals and skiing trips.
But the emergence of the Omicron variant has once again cast doubt over our hard-earned freedoms. There is little conclusive data but the early signs suggest increased transmissibility and a degree of vaccine escape.
Public health experts and ministers veer between messages of caution and optimism: suggesting either that boosters will come to the rescue, the disease is mild or that we are doomed to further restrictions.
So far, the Government has imposed light-touch restrictions, with face masks mandatory once again on public transport and in shops and testing reintroduced for travellers returning to the UK.
But should Omicron prove to be dangerous, and a large wave of infection force the return of strict rules, would Britons stomach another lockdown?
The Standard spoke to a range of experts to find out.
‘Behavioural fatigue is a nonsense idea’
Politicians wary of imposing tighter restrictions often refer to “behavioural fatigue” – the notion that the public have abided by lockdown rules for long enough and simply won’t do it again.
But Professor Robert West, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE, denies that the public feel so fatigued after 18 months of curbs that they would refuse to stay at home again if required.
“’Behavioural fatigue’ is a nonsense idea made up to excuse inaction,” he tells the Standard. “The evidence consistently shows the public to be more supportive of protective measures than the Government.
“People have remained supportive of protective measures but they have been enacting them less and less, as it has become less ‘normal’ to do so.”
Recent data from YouGov shows that many Britons remain opposed to the most severe restrictions – such as a full lockdown – but would support other more incremental measures. Nearly 70 per cent of people are in favour of reintroducing social distancing in hospitality venues, but only 23 per cent support their closure.
Prof West, a professor of health psychology at University College London (UCL), says the public would likely accept further restrictions if the threat of the new variant is made clear.
“If it became necessary to protect them and their loved ones I have no doubt that the vast majority would support some form of ‘lock—down’ as the lesser of two evils - providing the Government played its part by providing the necessary financial support and clearly explaining why it was necessary.”
Most importantly, Prof West says that ministers must stop assuming that the public will rebel against measures and not seek to blame them when a small minority do break the rules.
“The Government has, throughout the pandemic, sought to put the blame on the public for not ‘acting responsibly’ when, of course, everyone has a responsibility – the public, businesses, and central and local government,” he adds.
‘We would obey the rules - but it isn’t as straightforward as before’
The latest polling suggests that while Britons remain open towards lighter restrictions, imposing a full lockdown would be less popular than before thanks to the progress made on vaccination. Before the emergence of the Omicron variant, ministers were even floating an exit strategy titled ‘Operation Rampdown’ that would have effectively ended all national Covid containment measures from March.
A survey by former Downing Street pollster and political adviser James Johnson, on behalf of Kekst CNC, found that at the beginning of the pandemic, only 13 per cent of Britons prioritised protecting the economy over limiting the spread of the disease. This had risen to 34 per cent in October.
Mr Johnson tells the Standard that the shift in public opinion was unsurprising given the high level of protection afforded by vaccination and the end of the furlough scheme, which has removed the financial security net for millions of people.
“We are in a very different climate of public opinion compared to the start of the pandemic,” he says. “The restrictions brought in last week were some of the easiest levers to pull for the government. If they were to become more interventionist, I suspect it could be more difficult.
“However, the big caveat to this is if data on the Omicron variant is worse than people expect. If we saw a really scary set of statistics and increased pressure on the NHS, you might see the polling around restrictions change.”
Mr Johnson says that reports suggesting the Omicron variant was a milder form of the disease had cut through in focus groups – with many participants feeling a “sense of relief”. But even if the variant is less severe, the government “could still point to the sheer volume of cases” as a sign of looming danger, he adds.
Crafting a more nuanced public health message could be a difficult task for ministers in a different political climate to March 2020, Mr Johnson says. But effective communication is undermined by reports of boozy parties at Downing Street last Christmas or the prime minister being pictured without a face mask in hospital.
“Political double standards and hypocrisy make messages hard to get across,” he adds. “The public is very alive to these things.”
Equally, the influence of the Tory libertarian right – which formed the Covid Recovery Group in November 2020 to challenge restrictions - creates a dilemma for the prime minister.
Steve Baker, the group’s deputy chairman, told MPs last week that the reintroduction of face masks and testing for travel was a “downwards path towards hell” and constituted the “minute management of our lives before edict”.
Mr Johnson says some sections of the public “may take their cues” from these MPs. “They are even more influential now when the prime minister is under political pressure, and they have more of a foot in to the public.
“Prioritising the economic recovery was seen as heresy last year – it is now more part of mainstream public opinion.”
‘Fatigue isn’t the same as being incapable of putting up with restrictions’
Professor Stephen Reicher, also member of the SPI-B, says that the concept of behavioural fatigue is “not precise” as a scientific concept – so shouldn’t be used by the Government to justify delaying restrictions.
“It suggests that we not only grow weary of restrictions but we become incapable of putting up with them,” he tells the Standard. “The idea that we lack the psychological resilience to put up with restrictions or lockdown is a different thing. It’s unproven.”
Prof Reicher, a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews, says that the lack of consistency in public health communication from ministers would need to change in order for them to build a case for imposing severe restrictions later this winter.
“One of the major factors that boosts adherence is a sense of community,” he says. “The government increasingly talks about a sense of personal responsibility – but it seems critical to me to build a sense of social responsibility: to wear a mask and get vaccinated not just to protect myself but to protect the vulnerable around me.”
Prof Reicher says there are “two problems” with communication at the moment. “Firstly, it is vague,” he says. “Most people understood the ‘stay at home’ message last year, but when this changed to ‘stay alert’, a lot of the public was confused. Good messaging lets you know precisely what behaviour is expected of you.”
Moreover, he says ministers are “pulled in different directions” by competing political groups in parliament and can often sound “horribly contradictory” as a result.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the confusion last week over whether work Christmas parties should go ahead – with a string of ministers issuing wildly different answers to broadcast media over a 24-hour period.
He says: “It comes from a rather paternalistic view of the public – as if we are all like children and you can’t tell them something bad because it will upset them.
“The government has lacked trust in the public. It feels that we intellectually that we are incapable of dealing with slightly more nuanced messages. I think that conclusion is wrong.”
Once again, the country stands at another crossroads during the pandemic in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The grim memories of eating turkey with family over Zoom and ringing in the New Year alone lingers heavily in the minds of millions of Britons.
The prime minister is set to make a final decision over whether to impose restrictions over Christmas on December 18, according to reports. By then, ministers will have a raft of data about the Omicron variant that should allow them to make a final decision.
As he takes to the podium alongside Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the British public will be hoping he does not wish us “a merry little Christmas” once again.