The Observer view on Boris Johnson | Observer editorial

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Every month of Boris Johnson’s premiership brings a new reminder of his rank unfitness for office. As the country is on the verge of an Omicron wave that could pose a profound challenge to the NHS, the government is mired in a deep political crisis entirely of its own making, after a week in which yet more of Johnson’s hypocrisy and corruption have been exposed.

A year ago, citizens made huge sacrifices in obeying Covid restrictions to limit the number of individuals who lost their lives in the second wave. As in the first wave of the pandemic, Johnson left it far too late to introduce social restrictions last autumn, with the result that thousands died needlessly and more damage than necessary was inflicted on the economy. But public compliance with restrictions when they were eventually brought in was high, as people did their bit to ease pressure on the NHS and save lives. Relatives missed saying final goodbyes to loved ones with Covid; grandparents missed first Christmases; more people than usual spent Christmas alone. Yet we have discovered that individuals working for the government held Christmas parties across Whitehall, including in No 10, in flagrant breach of the government’s own regulations that so many people abided by, at great personal cost.

Johnson’s claims that he did not know about the reported parties in No 10 or the cultures of entitlement that fuelled them are not credible. No one in government has taken adequate responsibility for what happened. It reveals an abject disregard for the public and has further undermined trust in the government at a critical phase of the pandemic, just when ministers are asking the public to comply with extra Covid measures.

The revelations that Johnson’s team had so little respect for the public have prompted a political crisis just at the moment when the government should be focused on what action is needed to combat the Omicron variant. Emerging data has suggested the new variant is far more transmissible than Delta and that a double vaccine provides much less protection against symptomatic infection, although a booster dose is very effective. It is too early to tell the extent to which Omicron is associated with serious illness, hospital admissions and death in a population with the UK’s levels of immunity and age profile, but even if the risk of hospital admissions is half that of Delta, its significant transmissibility advantage means there is a very substantial risk that, without further action, the NHS could be overwhelmed this winter. This is why Professor John Edmunds, one of the government’s scientific advisers, has said Omicron represents a “very severe setback” to hopes of bringing the virus under control.

On Wednesday, the government announced it would be introducing its plan B measures: compulsory masks in more settings, Covid passports for nightclubs and large-capacity venues and asking people to work from home if they can. But many experts have raised doubts about whether these will make enough of a difference to the spread of Omicron. While levels of immunity are better than they were last winter, Omicron’s transmission advantage means Johnson now faces a similar decision to last Christmas: should he take precautionary action now in order to avoid tougher social restrictions to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed later? Ministers should be considering further measures, such as extending vaccine passports to all forms of hospitality, and re-extending self-isolation to all contacts of Covid cases, while, as we have long argued, ensuring everyone has access to decent sick pay so they can afford to test if they have symptoms and to self-isolate if positive. Moreover, while boosters have rightly been heralded as the first line of defence against Omicron, many who are officially eligible for the booster dose have been unable to access it due to limited capacity across the UK. The booster programme has proceeded in a more lethargic fashion than the original rollout of vaccines, despite the risk of a more vaccine-resistant strain such as Omicron emerging. There should have been an unrelenting drive within government last week to rapidly expand vaccine capacity across the four nations.

But just as Johnson’s sole focus should be on the booster rollout and any further measures needed to combat Omicron, his premiership is being consumed by a self-inflicted political crisis. His political authority in the Conservative party has ebbed away as a result of his terrible handling of the Owen Paterson corruption scandal, the revelations that he misled the government’s adviser on ministerial interests on the funding of the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat and the political fallout of his senior staff holding parties while the country was in lockdown. He faces a significant backbench rebellion over a parliamentary vote on the introduction of plan B, let alone on any further measures. We know Johnson is a man who has elected to put personal interests before country time and again: there is a risk that he is again being too slow to take the action required because he is swayed by retaining the support of newly emboldened rebellious backbenchers.

It is a national misfortune that we have a man who is by far and away the worst postwar prime minister in office at the time of the worst postwar crisis. Johnson lacks any shred of integrity, is driven by ego and self-interest and has been prepared to mislead voters over and over again. He is incompetent and embodies the entitled politician who sees politics as a game rather than a duty. He is utterly unfit to govern Britain.





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