Boris Johnson was under growing pressure last night not to impose lockdown restrictions that will ruin Christmas for the second year in a row, with one Cabinet minister threatening to quit if a new festive crackdown is imposed.
Tory MPs last night said any attempt to toughen rules before Christmas will provoke letters seeking to oust Mr. Johnson as party leader.
The Prime Minister is reportedly considering three scenarios to tackle the Omicron variant, including restrictions on mixing indoors in England, a curfew on pubs and restaurants, and even an immediate lockdown.
And Health Secretary Sajid Javid yesterday refused to rule out Covid measures coming into force before Christmas Day.
But ministers indicated they will not back new curbs. Rishi Sunak is understood to be arguing that they need to plot a clear route out of restrictions before they are imposed, while Liz Truss says she is ‘uncomfortable’ with the current curbs.
One Cabinet minister has even gone as far as to say they will resign if the PM introduced another full lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.
And in a sign of the ever-growing threat of further restrictions, Mr. Johnson, who has repeatedly insisted that Christmas Day would not be cancelled, cleared his diary today in order to hold emergency meetings with scientists and his advisers, reports The Mirror.
The warnings from MPs and Cabinet ministers come just 24 hours after Lord Frost, up to now a close ally of Mr. Johnson, dramatically quit as Brexit Minister slating ‘coercive’ Covid curbs and high taxes.
Lord Frost walked out with a parting shot at the ‘direction of travel’ and said he had hoped the end of lockdown would be ‘irreversible’. His departure was described as a ‘watershed moment’ in what had been an extremely damaging week for Boris Johnson.
It comes as the official number of confirmed cases of the Omicron variant rose by nearly 50 per cent to 37,000 in just 24 hours.
Families are desperate to spend Christmas together after last year’s Covid lockdown rules meant millions were forced to be apart or severely scale back their celebrations.
It is understood Mr. Johnson is resisting calls for restrictions ahead of December 25, but there are mounting fears they will be imposed after that, spoiling New Year plans for millions.
Scientists are urging the Prime Minister to bring in restrictions quickly, amid warnings that hospitals will struggle to cope with rising infection numbers.
Mr. Javid repeatedly declined to rule out imposing tough restrictions before Christmas as he warned there are ‘no guarantees’ Christmas Day will go ahead without a lockdown. The Health Secretary acknowledged that data about the Omicron variant remained incomplete – but suggested it might be necessary to make decisions before a full picture is available.
‘If you wait until data is absolutely perfect it may well be too late,’ he said.
The Health Secretary admitted ‘everything is under review’ after SAGE delivered a grim assessment that the number of infections could reach two million by the end of the month without tougher restrictions – floating a ‘circuit breaker’ ban on households mixing and closure of non-essential shops.
Asked about ruling out new coronavirus measures before Christmas, Mr. Javid told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘There are no guarantees in this pandemic.
‘At this point, we just have to keep everything under review… We are assessing the situation. It’s very fast-moving. There’s a lot that we still don’t know about Omicron. That’s the truth of the matter. The reality is there’s a lot of uncertainty.’
He argued that it was ‘time to be more cautious, adding: ‘We know this thing is spreading rapidly.’
In minutes published at the weekend, experts from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) urged the Government to reintroduce ‘more stringent measures… very soon, warning that without action, there could be a peak of 3,000 patients a day needing a hospital bed in England.
The scientists suggested reintroducing curbs such as banning indoor social contact and hospitality. Mr. Javid said the advice was ‘very sobering’, adding: ‘We take it very seriously. We do have to challenge data and underlying assumptions, I think that is appropriate, and take into account a broader set of facts.’
The Health Secretary suggested people should limit their social contact over Christmas and limit hugs with relatives.
The Prime Minister has been presented with three options to tackle the spread of the virus, according to the Daily Telegraph.
The paper reported that they range from guidance asking people to limit indoor contacts, to rules on household mixing, social distancing and a curfew on pubs and restaurants, and thirdly a full lockdown. Mr. Johnson is understood to favour the most ‘light touch’ option.
One Cabinet minister told the newspaper that data presented by Sir Patrick and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty on Saturday was ‘just trashed by the Cabinet’.
The source said: ‘There will be no more restrictions brought in by the backdoor. That would be fatal. More guidelines rather than restrictions are entirely possible.’
‘It is guidance but not regulations on household mixing,’ a Government source said, adding ‘The third tier is the heaviest covering everything up to and including lockdown. On the basis of the data, there are some who believe we could quite easily justify locking down before Christmas.’
Cabinet sources last night characterised the mood in Downing Street as ‘jumpy’. Senior ministers believe Mr. Johnson will hold off on imposing restrictions until after Christmas, but expect they could be announced within days.
The Prime Minister has promised to recall Parliament over the festive period so MPs can hold a vote if he decides to bring in new curbs.
Questions have been raised about whether Mr. Johnson even has the political capital to push through restrictions, after a massive revolt against Plan B last week and the bombshell resignation of his Brexit minister Lord Frost overnight, highlighting the danger of ‘coercive’ policies.
Around one-third of the Cabinet are said to be reluctant to support new restrictions in the coming days, with Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak among them, according to The Times.
At least 10 ministers are resisting a call by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance at the weekend for new restrictions to be brought in as soon as possible to prevent the health service from being overwhelmed.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-skeptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to ‘hold firm’ against more restrictions and not make any ‘knee-jerk restrictions’.
He said: ‘Lockdowns, of any kind, should not become the default policy choice. Ministers need to balance wider impacts, not just Covid data.’
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said there was ‘no evidence for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas.
‘It would be wrong for the Government to lurch into what would be an economic crisis for the sake of supposition by scientists,’ he added.
One of the Tory rebel ringleaders said if Parliament was recalled to vote on imposing new curbs ‘at least as many of us that voted against last time will do so again. If restrictions are put in place then more letters will go in.’
A source told The Daily Telegraph that returning to lockdown was a ‘red line’ after the Prime Minister had said the previous easing of restrictions was ‘irreversible’. A senior Tory MP also warned there would be an ‘eruption’ on the backbenches if new measures were introduced.
Mr. Sunak, Ms. Truss, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, and Jacob Rees-Mogg are all understood to be against further restrictions, with one minister telling the newspaper: ‘The Cabinet isn’t stomaching any more restrictions right now.’
Mr. Johnson is also understood to be reluctant to implement further restrictions before Christmas. One ally told The Times: ‘He’s of the view that people are self-policing to an extent and getting boosted in big numbers.’
A Cabinet minister said that there would be a backlash if Mr. Johnson adopted a ban on household mixing and the closure of non-essential shops.
‘The Cabinet isn’t stomaching any more restrictions right now,’ a Cabinet minister told The Telegraph. ‘Apart from the fanatics, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, the rest of them are pretty sensible, including the PM.’
While the Prime Minister has promised to recall Parliament so MPs can hold a vote if he decides to bring in new curbs, Bob Blackburn, executive secretary of the 1922 Committee, said he believed the threat of another Tory rebellion would mean Mr. Johnson wouldn’t dare even put further restrictions to a vote.
Mr. Blackburn told The Telegraph: ‘If they thought they had a problem getting the last restrictions through, you can imagine what will happen if they come back for another go. The mood of colleagues is: ‘Enough is enough.
‘Ministers have got into the habit of thinking that they have a right to interfere in people’s family lives and livelihoods. They have no such right.
‘What is more, the toll in terms of mental health delayed treatment for other conditions, and the catastrophic consequences for businesses already shows this failed approach does more harm than good. If ministers took a few days off over Christmas, we would all have something to celebrate.’
Britain has recorded 82,886 Covid cases, which is lower than yesterday’s figure of 90,418. But the number of cases has risen by 32,473, or 64.4 per cent, in seven days.
Some 45 deaths were recorded today, a decrease of 66 from last week’s 111 and a percentage decrease of 59.5.
And cases of the Omicron variant have risen by 50 per cent in just 24 hours to 37,101 as the UK Health Security Agency confirmed a further 12,133 cases today.
Medical and science chiefs Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance briefed the Cabinet yesterday that more measures are required to stop hospital admissions soaring above 3,000 per day in England.
Modelling suggests the peak could be as high as 10,000 and the daily death toll might reach 6,000.
However, there is deep resistance among ministers about the prospect of plunging millions of people back into lockdown wrecking Christmas again while evidence remains unclear.
Former minister Tim Loughton told The Telegraph: ‘Wrecking people’s Christmas for a second year running would go down incredibly badly.
‘If it is based on more of the sort of dodgy modelling which led to previous knee-jerk lockdown reactions which did untold damage and lots of unintended consequences then it must be challenged at all costs and Parliament must be given the opportunity to challenge it.’
Tory MP Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the Covid recovery group, warned there would be an ‘extremely adverse’ reaction from Tory MPs who were told there would be no more restrictions.
‘If that word is broken within days, there will be real dismay that promises were made to secure votes, then further restrictions came in. That sort of conduct cannot go on for long,’ he said.
The fast-moving nature of the situation was underlined tonight as the official number of confirmed cases rose by nearly 50 per cent to 37,000, with another 12,000 identified in 24 hours. There are believed to be far more infections as many either go undiagnosed or will not have been tested for yet.
Mr. Javid appeared to hint at a looming shift this morning, saying the SAGE analysis is ‘sobering’ and the government is ready to ‘do what is necessary.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr. Javid said in his former career as a trader the ‘most important decisions were taken when data were ‘early and patchy, but a trend was emerging. ‘Once that trend leads to a clear outcome, it may be too late to react to it,’ he wrote.
SAGE papers from a meeting on Thursday caution that delaying curbs until 2022 would ‘greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.’
The advisers suggested reintroducing measures ‘equivalent to those in place after step 2 or step 1 of the roadmap in England’. At the first stage of the roadmap in March this year only one-on-one mixing was allowed outside of households, and non-essential retail was still shut. At the second stage, the following month bars and restaurants could serve customers outdoors, and households were not permitted to mix indoors.
Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay will chair a Cobra meeting later that is expected to consider the option of a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown.
But Mr. Johnson is thought to be sceptical of an immediate response and there would be considerable opposition within his Cabinet.
One minister told the Sunday Times: ‘We can’t have a situation where we lock down every winter and kill off the economy. We need to stop reading across what is happening in South Africa in terms of what is happening here. It is like comparing apples with pears.’
There is speculation that instead the ‘handbrake would be pulled’ after December 25, with claims an announcement has been pencilled in for Boxing Day.
SAGE has backed a dramatic shutdown of non-essential shops and ban on households mixing to avoid a torrent of hospitalisations and deaths with Omicron running riot.
Minutes show the government’s key advisory body agreed on Thursday that hospitalisations could hit at least 3,000 a day in England alone without ‘stringent measures’.
Grim modelling from the SPI-M-O group considered at the meeting suggests admissions could go as high as 10,000 a day – with up to 6,000 daily deaths.
The SAGE consensus says ‘earlier interventions’ would have a ‘greater effect’ and could possibly be in place for a ‘shorter duration’, arguing they will be far less effective if delayed past New Year.
The statement suggests effectively ripping up the government’s supposedly ‘irreversible’ roadmap out of lockdown – returning to stage 1 or 2, which means only essential retail opening and no mixing between households.
‘Illustrative scenarios from SPI-M-O suggest that measures equivalent to those in place after Step 2 or Step 1 of the Roadmap in England if enacted early enough, could substantially reduce the potential peak in hospital admissions and infections compared with Plan B alone (medium confidence),’ SAGE said.
‘The timing of such measures is crucial. Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.
‘Slowing the wave of infections would also allow more people to receive boosters before they are potentially exposed to Omicron. This would prevent (not just delay) some hospitalisations and deaths.’
The SAGE papers make clear that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the threat posed by Omicron.
But they cite ‘high confidence’ that it spreads faster than the Delta variant and will sweep the country.
Professor John Edmunds, who sits on Sage, told The Times that delaying new restrictions may result in millions more infections.
‘We’re close to the point where there already may be enough cases in the system to overwhelm the NHS,’ he said.
But one government minister said there needs to be more information about the new variant before new restrictions are imposed.
‘Is it right to make decisions on information that is incomplete and models that have been completely wrong in the past,’ the minister asked.
They said ‘everyone questioned the data and [highlighted] its incompleteness’ during the cabinet briefing with Valance on Saturday.
‘Hospitals are not being overwhelmed,’ they said. ‘We’re in a battle to save Christmas. Sajid and Gove are mad for it [further restrictions].’
Mr. Javid told Trevor Phillips On Sunday on Sky News: ‘We’ve shown in the past as Government in dealing with this pandemic that we will do what is necessary but it’s got to be backed up by the data.’
He added: ‘We are watching the data and discussing it with our scientists and our best advisors almost on an hourly basis. And we will monitor that very carefully. We will keep the situation under review.’
He said various factors including vaccinations, antiviral medication, and other treatments for Covid-19 mean ‘the situation today in terms of our defences is very different.
Asked if Parliament would be recalled to give approval for new measures, Mr. Javid said: ‘If, and it’s an if, the Prime Minister has already been clear to parliamentarians if there was a need to take any further action we would recall Parliament and it would have to be a decision for Parliament. That is only right and proper.’
Mr. Javid also launched a savage attack on vaccine refusers, saying they must think about the ‘damage they are doing to society.
He warned that 10 per cent of the population – more than five million people – have still not received jabs, and around nine out of 10 of those needing the most care in the hospital were unvaccinated.
‘I just cannot emphasise enough the impact that they are having on the rest of society,’ he said.
‘They must really think about the damage they are doing to society by… they take up hospital beds that could have been used for someone with maybe a heart problem, or maybe someone who is waiting for elective surgery.
‘But instead of protecting themselves and protecting the community, they choose not to get vaccinated. They are really having a damaging impact and I just can’t stress enough, please do come forward and get vaccinated.’
Mr. Johnson has been arguing that a fast booster vaccination campaign can buy the NHS valuable time. In a glimmer of optimism, it emerged that the NHS has broken the daily record again, handing out more than 900,000 of the jabs in England alone over 24 hours.
Senior figures including Rishi Sunak and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps are also sceptical about cracking down further.
But SAGE advisers have been telling the government that mixing of households should be banned ‘very soon to stop the Omicron variant running riot and sending hospitalisations about the peak from last Christmas.
Professor Sir Mark Walport acknowledged this is the second Christmas which could be ‘significantly ruined’ for people, but that he believed new measures are needed as infections are ‘rising fast’.
Echoing advice in recent days from England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, he said people should ‘be prudent and only have the social contacts which are really important to you.
Sir Mark, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told Sky that action needs to be taken ‘to hold down the rate of hospital admissions, reduce the pressure on the workforce’, noting many people are off sick due to infection.
He added: ‘Most importantly of all, give people the chance to get vaccinated, to get boosted, and allow time for those vaccinations to have an effect.’
Stricter measures could be imposed after Boxing Day, according to a report in The Sun newspaper, which said the contingency plan had not yet been presented to ministers.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who declared a major incident due to the ‘hugely concerning’ surge in cases across the capital, said it was ‘inevitable’ that new coronavirus measures would be brought in.
He told Marr there ‘must, must, must be a major package of support for our hospitality, culture, and retail’.
Mr. Javid, defending their recent approach, said it was ‘not quite right to say the Government’s not doing anything at all.
He told Marr: ‘I completely understand businesses now coming forward to say ‘I’m hard hit’, and they have every right to make those representations to Government.
‘The Chancellor and his team are listening, I think the Chancellor has done an excellent job throughout this pandemic in dealing with this and no doubt he will keep things under review.’
The official number of coronavirus cases has risen by 36,345, or 67 per cent, in seven days.
However, there had been predictions that the total would be well into six figures by now.
Deaths fell by five per cent last week, to 125 from last Saturday’s 132.
The aim of a ‘circuit breaker’ ban on household mixing would be to stop hospitalisations overwhelming the NHS until booster jabs can be given to all adults, which the government hopes to achieve in January.
Some critics of the SAGE message point to data from South Africa which shows that far fewer people are hospitalised by Omicron leading to speculation that it could cause milder symptoms.
They also say that the Omicron wave in the ‘ground-zero’ Gauteng region where the variant was first detected has peaked much more rapidly than previous waves. After rising rapidly for three weeks, cases in Gauteng are now falling.
SAGE advisers counter that South Africa’s high levels of immunity from infection and young population could be responsible for the lower hospitalisation numbers.
Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of Sage, said it was clear that Plan B measures alone would not be enough to stop the spiralling numbers of Omicron cases in the Uk and that the Government needs to ‘act now.
He added: ‘Now, you could have it after Christmas, the problem is after Christmas it’s probably too late, it’s probably by then we will have had a huge surge of infections with all the impact upon society.’
The surging statistics came as Professor Neil Ferguson — whose projections have spooked No10 into lockdowns before — called for curbs to be tightened by New Year on the back of his latest modelling of the mutant strain.
He told BBC 4’s Today Programme hospitalisations could be overwhelmed by Christmas as Omicron cases rise in the next week with a ‘very large epidemic underway. He added: ‘The level of protection against severe disease is not perfect and the very large case numbers may still translate into very large numbers of hospitalisations.’
During the Sage meeting on Thursday, the experts backed a ban on indoor social contact and hospitality. In what could be a blow to Britons planning New Year parties, they want fresh measures to come in before January 1.
Leaked minutes from Sage, seen by the BBC, said scientists had told ministers that tougher measures need to be brought in ‘very soon.
‘The timing of such measures is crucial,’ said the minutes. ‘Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.’
Source: Daily Mail