Boris Johnson was praised by Tory MPs on Wednesday for keeping the economy open amid the Omicron wave of coronavirus infections, even though new data has spread of the disease across England.
The prime minister, who addressed MPs for the first time since the Christmas holidays, has confirmed he will not introduce new Covid-19 restrictions in England after the relatively modest “plan B” measures already in place.
Johnson would have faced a massive Conservative rebellion – also from within his cabinet – if he had insisted on new curbs to control a virus that infected one in 15 people in England in the last week of December.
Johnson’s decision to avoid new restrictions was “praised” in the House of Commons by former Prime Minister Theresa May, while former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “The prime minister was ready to hold his nerves.”
Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lock-up skeptical Conservative MPs, tweeted: “Credit to Boris Johnson for resisting calls for further restrictions over the Christmas period – the data has since proven to be the right decision.”
Some conservatives are not so sure and believe Johnson’s “gambling” – driven by pressure from Tory MPs who oppose further restrictions – could backfire if NHS hospitals are overwhelmed later this month.
One former cabinet minister said: “If the NHS collapses, it is in serious trouble. But at the moment there is not the same mood of crisis as there was just before Christmas. “
Johnson has experienced the biggest Tory parliamentary rebellion since becoming 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 to the plan B restrictions – especially guidance on working from home, wearing a mask in public places and the Covid Pass for big events.
The prime minister said the measures would be reviewed before they expire on January 26 and claimed that if Labor had been in control, the country would have spent the festive season under severe restrictions.
One minister said the vote in the cabinet was “confident” that the government had made the right decision, but added there was an acknowledgment that January would be “difficult” for the NHS.
Johnson said with more than 200,000 Covid-19 cases reported across the UK on Tuesday, the country was experiencing “the fastest growth in Covid cases we have known”.
“Potentially to the greatest concern, the caseload is now rising rapidly among the older and more vulnerable, including doubling every week among those over 60, with the obvious risk that it will continue to increase the pressure on our NHS,” he added.
The UK recorded more than 194,000 Covid cases in the latest 24-hour period on Wednesday.
Johnson has been reassured by studies suggesting that the Omicron variant is lighter than previous strains of coronavirus, with fewer people ending up in intensive care units.
However, an estimated 3.7 million Britons were infected with Covid-19 at the end of December, the highest number of weekly infections recorded by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the National Statistics Office.
One in 15 people in England had the virus in the week to 31 December. 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 possible slowdown in infections in London in the days before New Year’s Eve”. “However, it is too early to suggest that this is an overall change in trend,” she added.
More than 20 NHS hospital trusts have declared critical incidents amid the Omicron wave, according to Downing Street. Trusts are grappling with increasing Covid admissions and exacerbating staff shortages.
All 17 hospitals across Greater Manchester have meanwhile announced that they are canceling non-urgent surgeries.
Ministers believe the NHS will be hit by the worst of the Omicron boom later this month and Johnson will then face pressure from Conservative MPs to end Plan B measures when it expires on January 26.
“Where is the exit strategy of constraints?” asked Mark Harper, former Tory chief whip and chairman of the Covid Recovery Group. “We can not go on like this.”
Even if Johnson’s Omicron gambling pays off – and the NHS is not massively disrupted by a resurgence of hospitalizations – many conservative MPs are still unhappy with the prime minister.
Some on the Tory right see Johnson’s previous willingness to shut down the economy during the pandemic as a sign of his “non-conservative” instincts. They also speak out against his alleged big-state, high-tax approach to government.
The Prime Minister is facing two problematic reports in the coming days: one on the funding for his Downing Street apartment renovation and the second an investigation into alleged illegal government Christmas parties during Covid restrictions at the end of 2020.
But Downing Street is more concerned about the political consequences of a cost-of-living crisis, with inflation above 5 percent, energy prices rise and tax increases kicking in at the beginning of April.
“The local elections are the key,” one Tory MP said on Monday, referring to a series of polls across the country on May 5 that were seen by some in the party as a referendum on Johnson’s performance. “If we’re doing really badly, he could be in trouble.”