Prime Minister Boris Johnson was politically weak when omicron hit the UK but the middle ground he occupied seems to have been a good move. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was politically weak when omicron hit the UK but the middle ground he occupied seems to have been a good move. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Greetings from the mid-Atlantic. Concluding a strange holiday season defined almost in its entirety by the pandemic, I am now on my way back to the US after almost a month in the UK. After being in London for what appears to have been the peak of the omicron variant there, my family and I might be just in time for another one in New York. Britain has had yet another political row on this, while the US is about to rake over the issue once more. 

The latest news items about the pandemic are still driving the daily moves of bond and stock markets, even though Covid-19 hasn’t stopped them from creating remarkable wealth over the past two years. At the time of writing, that continues with bond yields rising in reaction to evidence that omicron really isn’t as severe as previous variants. It’s easy to lose perspective.

Here then follows an attempt to view the pandemic from 40,000 feet (literally), based less on the Johns Hopkins University statistics and more on my own attempt to sum up what we’ve learnt since early 2020, particularly the past month. Be warned that I won’t attempt to go into any detail on financial markets, but I hope this will be useful.

Politically and socially toxic

Covid-19 is far too easy to cast in moral terms. That is why it has become so politically and socially toxic.

Many mistakes have been made by many people throughout the pandemic. As they were dealing with truly unprecedented circumstances, and a prohibitive uncertainty, it might be best to assume those mistakes were honestly made by people trying to do the right thing.

The issue has become so entrenched because both sides impute morally bad behaviour and motives to the other. Politicians trying to protect the populace are not necessarily dictators, and those who object to lockdowns and vaccines aren’t necessarily selfish. With both sides convinced of the other’s evil intent, compromise and reconciliation grow difficult.

That is the greatest risk for the future. It’s also a shame because the story of the past two years was the steady resolution of uncertainty, and fitful moves towards an approach that all can accept.

This is an incomplete list of the things we know now about Covid-19 that weren’t clear two years ago: 

  • It’s not spread by contact, but primarily through the air.
  • Masks are, therefore, a good idea.
  • Good masks make a difference. With the highly infectious omicron variant, N95 masks are still protective, cloth masks much less so.
  • Natural immunity from being infected by the virus is finite, making herd immunity via infection elusive.
  • Vaccines are helpful but not “the answer” because the immunity they confer is also finite.
  • Covid-19 and its aftereffects are severe enough to make it worth going to some lengths to avoid it, and to very great lengths to protect the most vulnerable.
  • The virus isn’t dangerous enough, however, to justify a major shutdown of society.
  • “Lockdown” is an overused word. Measures of economic and transport activity make clear that countries without official lockdowns have often seen greater reductions in activity than those that were more laissez-faire.
  • Tests, if they are quick, can set us free.

When all of these things were uncertain, the draconian and deeply damaging lockdowns of March and April 2020 were probably justified. With greater knowledge, we can manage something better. And for evidence of this, I with some amazement offer the case of Boris Johnson.

Taking a gamble

The UK’s prime minister was in serious trouble by early December, thanks to various domestic scandals. Omicron arrived just as he was politically weak and when his cabinet was divided over how to respond. Scientific advisers urged significant restrictions, while libertarians in the cabinet said the British public would never stand for a second successive cancelled Christmas.

Johnson’s moves as the government tried to deal with omicron were viewed almost entirely through the lens of political calculation, but the middle ground he sketched out seems, whether by luck or by judgment, to have been a good one. The essential elements of the “plan” that emerged were as follows:

  • “Plan B” restrictions on movement. People were urged to work from home “if they could”, and required to take tests before entering crowded venues. There was no forced lockdown as such.
  • Strong advice from government scientific advisers that omicron was very infectious and that people should try not to catch it. 
  • A huge campaign to offer booster vaccine shots. It wasn’t compulsory but it was free and publicised aggressively. 

The government asked people not to spread the virus, and with free vaccines and tests offered the chance to protect themselves and be responsible citizens. But they didn’t force people into anything. This was lambasted from both sides. Many felt that the government had failed in its duty to protect the population, while others viewed it as an unacceptable infringement on our liberties.

Honour system

It’s still too early to pass judgment. But at this point, it looks like the compromise has worked. London in the two weeks before Christmas was unnaturally quiet. It wasn’t the total standstill of spring in 2020, but it was easy to get a seat on the Tube, even at rush hour. Offices in the City of London were virtually empty. People voluntarily withdrew from society.

But Christmas still happened. Museums and theatres were mostly open, and by the week after Christmas there was plenty of festive activity. Outside London, where omicron hit first and worst, activity was much less dented. 

Certainly, cases went through the roof. But as of now, it looks as though the National Health Service (NHS) should just about deal with the pressure. Omicron’s essential mildness, as well as the extra protection from vaccines, have tended to keep people out of hospital, particularly intensive care.   

The critical tool has been the availability of rapid lateral flow tests. Demand has swamped pharmacies in Britain in recent weeks, while the US remains largely without them. Making rapid tests widely available is a logistical challenge. But it needs to be done. Swift testing alleviates moral dilemmas and makes everyone safer.

From my personal experience (and everyone in Britain seems to have similar tales): we twice cancelled dates to meet friends because they’d tested positive. My daughter delayed her flight to the UK due to a positive test. We didn’t head for my elderly parents’ house until we’d checked that we were all negative. Test results got us into the British Museum, a theatre and a couple of football matches.

All of this is on the “honour system” — you read the result of your test and send it to the NHS. It has no way to check whether you are lying, and instead trusts people not to go to crowded places, get together with close friends, board a plane or meet someone vulnerable if they know they’re infectious. And libertarians and paternalists alike can agree that anyone who does such a thing is contemptible. 

The results are still unclear, but at present it appears as though Johnson’s gamble will succeed. Omicron will inflict some economic damage, some loss of life and some long-term ill health. It succeeded in dampening Britain’s Christmas somewhat. But in all cases, the damage looks as though it will be tolerable. A messy compromise based on new knowledge seems at this point to have reconciled all the opposing demands. 

Political and economic prospects

Covid-19 has already made many fools on many occasions, so predictions for the future are dangerous. The most likely scenario at this point is that the economic damage will continue to diminish, messily. Inflation, the issue of the day, will tend to increase both supply and demand. The impact on prices will depend on which effect is greater.

As it grows ever clearer that dealing with Covid-19 is a huge logistical challenge, the implications for the international order are intriguing. Ridding the emerging world of the virus and its future variants is going to be a mighty difficulty. Meanwhile, strict lockdowns look harder and harder to sustain. The experience of the continental European countries that opted to clamp down in response to omicron, such as the Netherlands, will make a handy control test for the success of the Johnson Variant in the UK.

But the most important issue concerns politics. It’s just faintly possible that we are finally at a point where the political sting of the pandemic can be drawn. Its greatest threat has been neutralised, and we now have ways to control it that reconcile the warring camps. 

But this still seems a faint hope. So many have convinced themselves that profound moral principles are at stake and that those who disagree with them are evil or irresponsible, that it will be difficult, going on impossible, to return to equilibrium. This is the greatest risk ahead, and the passionate and intemperate debates of the past month make it hard to see how it can be avoided. That, at least, is the view from 40,000 feet. 

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
Bloomberg

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