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Mild Omicron wave will bring down the COVID police state

Milton Friedman famously observed that “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program”.

In December 2001, British terrorist Richard Reid boarded a transatlantic flight wearing shoes laced with explosives. Twenty years later, we still endure the ritual of taking off our trainers to go through security at most international airports.

Crises, wars and security threats tend to leave policies that endure.

The scope of government never returns to its pre-crisis norm even after the emergencies pass, as new powers become entrenched and new bureaucracies established. So classical liberal fears that unprecedented public health measures during the pandemic foreshadow more permanent interventions are understandable.

The jury is out on what the long-term consequences of this experience will be for the role of the state. Yet those seeking to pare back COVID-19 regulations have an unlikely ally: the Omicron variant.

Its sheer transmissibility is tearing apart the justification for many COVID-19 protocols, whether the public health bureaucracy likes it or not.

Omicron has already forced a relaxation of testing regulations.

Positive rapid tests will no longer have to confirm their case via a PCR, which had been effectively resetting their isolation period, causing longer absences from work.

With trains cancelled, bins uncollected and hospitals missing staff, the Government considers the costs of longer quarantine periods too intolerable with these workforce disruptions.

Travel restrictions are being re-liberalised because of Omicron too.

With the virus everywhere, extensive screening and isolation for those travelling into Britain amounts to holding your finger in a dam’s hole with the village already flooded.

The Government is scrapping both pre-departure tests and the need to isolate until one obtains a negative PCR test result upon UK arrival.

Now, a negative rapid test sometime between days zero and two after entry is sufficient.

True, neither change eliminates testing protocols entirely. But both moves highlight an Omicron-enforced change in judging interventions’ costs and benefits.

The variant’s rapid spread simply destroys any vestige of the possibility of “zero COVID”, while weakening our ability even to significantly suppress it.

Office for National Statistics work estimates that one in 15 people in England – a huge 3.8 million individuals – were infected in the last week of December.

With an Omicron-specific vaccine unlikely soon, more stringent restrictions would just delay an inevitable case surge until the re-opening.

Seeing the virus everywhere, even those most hawkish about it are waking up to the extent to which it is endemic and the futility of attempting to eliminate it.

As millions and millions recover from infection, locking them down again for no benefit creates an ever-strengthening political barrier against society-wide lockdowns.

As home tests become the default for most mild cases, two further developments will occur.

First, more people who test positive but are asymptomatic will live their lives normally “under the radar”, forcing authorities to shorten isolation periods to encourage compliance.

US isolation guidance for this group has already been cut to five days. Expect this to be shortened here in the future.

Second, as vaccinated people see those around them living through relatively mild cases, they will revise their own personal benefit-cost assessments towards normalised lives, even when caseloads are high.

How many people have you heard say “I’d prefer to get it out of the way now” in recent weeks? We are, almost by default, heading to a societal approach of seeking to protect the vulnerable, with others living normally.

Omicron’s features, in fact, have meant many of the lockdown sceptics’ 2020 lines are now valid concerns.

Even COVID-19 hawks, including Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, today say focus should be on severe disease and hospitalisation, not cases. Being in the hospital “because of” COVID-19 rather than “with” COVID-19 is now widely considered an important distinction.

“Focused protection” is deemed about the best we can hope for with a virus spreading like wildfire.

As rapid tests become the major source of identifying the disease, a growing proportion of COVID-19 cases will go unreported too, with little information on whether even recorded cases are asymptomatic or those with horrible symptoms.

As a result, Omicron makes “doing” public health policy less justifiable on some fronts and more difficult on others.

After nearly two years of restrictions, these harsh realities are being internalised in opinion polls.

Though restrictions have certainly become more popular following the Omicron surge, YouGov’s surveys show support has peaked at much lower levels than in earlier waves.

The public opposed closing pubs or restricting indoor mixing in December, even with Omicron taking off.

The proportion backing school closures rose, but to just 21pc, compared with 81pc in March 2020 and 66pc in January 2021. Even cancelling large events failed to command a majority – at 46pc support, it sat much lower than the 88pc in spring 2020 or 78pc last winter.

Yes, we should not overplay Omicron’s impact on pandemic politics.

Boris Johnson has extended “Plan B”, which includes working from home guidance and mask mandates for most public indoor spaces.

But with the variant ripping through the population, it feels as if even these measures are being maintained to avoid public signalling that all is well, rather than out of a belief they have meaningfully “flattened the curve” to date.

The relentless unmanageable spread of this variant is simply unwinding the case for pandemic management policies, while the outbreak experience weakens public tolerance for restrictions.

It would be ironic if the biggest COVID-19 wave yet was what delivered the strongest impetus to a fuller return to normality.

Source: Ryan Bourne – The Telegraph