Covid Omicron variant: Government should act decisively, not keep us all on tenterhooks with constant warnings – Alastair Stewart

'The Omicron Variant' sounds like a line from Star Trek. It is easy to imagine Mr Spock coolly informing Captain Kirk it has broken out on planet Covid-19. But does he hit red alert?

Nicola Sturgeon receives a Covid booster vaccination in Glasgow on Saturday (Picture: Russell Cheyne/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The last week has made many of us hover our fingers over that button. Mixed messages from the Scottish and UK governments make it impossible to decide what to do next: do we cancel, reduce or delay festive gatherings?

Last December’s worrying headlines are back: “Act now to save Christmas.” The apocalyptic forewarning that “First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is preparing to make a statement amid the surge of Omicron” is no better.

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Look a little closer, and “Christmas” is not quite the same thing to all people. A holy day for many, it has evolved into a secular day of crackers, turkey and presents. Nor is it some Victorian image of the family by hearth and fire.

The birth of Christ is now a festive season beginning at the tail end of November and Black Friday right through to the Boxing Day and January sales.

It is an astronomically significant commercial season. Santa's sleigh is full of Amazon Prime parcels now. Analysts PwC predict nearly £9 billion was spent on Black Friday, twice the amount spent last year, during the lockdown.

There’s a sport in beating the food queues, getting the best deals, and having the best Christmas work do. It's joyously fun, but perhaps not the hill we should die on when chancing new Covid variants.

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Nicola Sturgeon has laid out an extremely confusing plan for tackling the Omicron variant. In a parliamentary update last week, there was fear but no panic. She doubled down on existing measures such as social distancing, masks and working from home.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney has now said people should take regular lateral flow tests for Covid “much more frequently” than twice a week.

Concurrently, the First Minister and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford are pushing for eight-day isolation and a PCR test for incoming travellers. The UK government rejected that request but has an appalling record of creating policy through last-minute U-turns.

Last Saturday, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid discreetly tweeted that incoming travellers must now take a pre-departure PCR or lateral flow test from today.

The entire end-of-year scramble to save the season is becoming a tradition in itself. Exactly as with last year, we have leaders who are incapable of making decisions in a timely way.

It was evident in at least November of 2020 that the following month would not be a typical one. The promise of a free-for-all Christmas week was quickly rubbished, but was never believable to begin with.

More emphasis seems to be placed on saving the commercial festive season than saving Christmas itself. It's not semantics to ask which takes precedence when triaging a nation struggling with Covid fatigue, unknown and potentially deadly variants, and seriously mixed signals from the country’s governments.

Any additional restrictions on hospitality and the airline industry will decimate them. But the spectre of doubt hanging over these industries is just as damaging. Should I book my flight, or not? Should I book my staff night out for 30 or wait for some new announcement as I may lose a deposit?

Buying time with a political credit card to pay for Christmas, when the cost is wrecking January, is hardly fair on any industry or people just trying to go about their lives.

Lack of clarity on this point is what's stressful. It seems the UK's governments cannot decide where (not when or if) the Covid axe will fall.

Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scottish government's Covid-19 advisory group, said the new measures designed to stop Omicron in the UK would not make a “material difference” as the variant is already “spreading pretty rapidly”.

UK government officials expect to start receiving the key data, which will define their response, from around December 13. A formal review will take place on December 18, and another critical review likely on January 8.

Nicola Sturgeon has assured people that she will “try to share with you on a real-time basis what we're asking people to do and why”.

This no longer feels good enough, particularly with something as emotive as Christmas. There is an intense amount of activity both before, during and after, and treating January as an afterthought negates other holidays – not least Orthodox Christmas, on the 7th.

It seems anyone who suggests governments should act when they know how things will turn out, based on their experience, is denounced as a doom merchant.

People need to live their lives and live them fully. But government policy has struggled to balance pre-emptive strategies and projections without leaving people under a cloud of uncertainty.

It is increasingly absurd to simply hope that things will not go the way that they are pointing. From the moment the warning shots are fired to the day decisions are made about restrictions, behaviours start to change.

‘How best to combat Covid fatigue' should be a top-priority question. It is as legitimate a factor as any anti-Covid measure, particularly when there is a severe slump in morale.

Part of that solution must, and should be, to act clearly and decisively and forgo as much as possible the teasing menace of “we will make a statement” and “the government is considering”.

No, not everything should be scrapped immediately; no, restrictions should not be brought in for the sake of it. But there must be a better course available to leaders than this never-ending worry – rip off the plaster, sooner than later, rather than let people live with false hope, particularly at Christmas.

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