So, how was the last 12 months for you? Certainly, it was an unusual year, one where coronavirus still lingered and eased — but then along came Omicron.
In Europe, where Omicron cases are soaring and it is by far the most dominant and contagious strain, with lockdowns and travel limitations being part and parcel of life. In the United Kingdom, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have essentially imposed restrictions of social gatherings, sports team sports and spectators have been cancelled, working from home has been put in place, and the devolved governments — health is the responsibility of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast — have all said they are prepared to impose further restrictions if needed.
The Omicron case data is being analysed daily and the devolved governments want to protect their health services and will swiftly act to lockdown ever further.
England? That’s another case.
Daily cases of Omicron are topping 100,000 and while the official advice is to celebrate the advent of 2022 outdoors, if possible, there are few restrictions on socialising. While working from home is suggested, thousands can still gather at events as long as they are able to show a negative test within 48 hours or have been double vaccinated.
Even then, there are questions about the effectiveness of the National Health Service app where QR codes for vaccination status can be proved. Anecdotally, I know of two people that have obtained false vaccine status codes and have used them to travel from Spain to the UK regularly. Both are ardent anti-vaxxers.
The devolved governments collectively believe England’s response to Omicron — waiting to see what will happen — as highly irresponsible, as the coronavirus doesn’t recognise the geographic features that pass as borders between England and the rest of the UK.
The official line in Downing Street is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is analysing the data daily and won’t hesitate to impose stricter measures if needed. The political reality is far darker.
Hibernation and stagnation
More than half of Johnson’s cabinet are opposed to any more measures that might upset the delicate economic recovery underway out of the hibernation and stagnation caused by locking down over the past 22 months.
The last time Johnson tried to impose coronavirus restrictions, some 100 Members of Parliament in his own Conservative party voted against him, leaving the PM in the embarrassing situation of having to rely on the opposition Labour party to get its measures through the House of Commons. After months of scandals and missteps, Johnson is a wounded leader, one where another misstep or ill-judged move might trigger an official challenge to his leadership. And were that to happen, there is no certainty that he would survive.
Boris built his popularity on a belief with voters that he alone could get Brexit done. Yes, he did, but a year on after it has taken effect, the reality of breaking away from the European Union and the world’s third-largest market on its doorstep is nowhere near as alluring as Boris and his merry band of Brexiteers had people believe.
According to a major opinion poll released just before Christmas, more than six out of 10 voters believe Brexit has gone badly or worse than they expected.
That majority who voted for Brexit in that ill-fated referendum five years ago? The poll says that 42 per cent of those who voted to Leave now have a negative view of how Brexit had turned out so far. More than a quarter of Leave supporters said it had gone worse than they expected, while another 16 per cent of those who voted Leave and expected it to go badly now said they had been proved right — hardly a ringing endorsement.
The issue of immigration
One of the big arguments used in favour of leaving the EU was that Britain could control its immigration. Figures released in December show that net immigration to Britain fell by almost 90 per cent last year to its lowest level since 1993. How much of that was down to the pandemic?
Perhaps the answer to that lies in the shortage of lower-paid workers who were willing to pick crops in fields, stock shelves, work in restaurants and bars, drive trucks, and work in care homes for the elderly and inform. All these sectors are suffering from labour shortages, so much so that the Johnson government has had to provide temporary work permits to truck drivers and care workers. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of Brexit.
As things stand now, Britain is due to face more disruption to its trade with the EU when it introduces new post-Brexit customs checks on Jan. 1. Even the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva is warning that trade with the EU has dropped significantly and she expects there will be more impact ahead as the customs checks.
Brexit was supposed to be an opportunity for Britain’s farmers and food processors to shine in their domestic market. That was the hope. The reality is far different. Farmers in areas of France, for example, are now sending 42 per cent more vegetables in the UK now — there aren’t enough pickers in Britain now to harvest vegetables.
Exports of meat products from the northwest of France to Britain have soared by 52 per cent in the past year. Why? There’s a shortage of some 15,000 butchers in Johnson’s post Brexit Britain. And yes, such hardship may continue into 2022.