With plans for the two-week circuit breaker still said to be on the table, Mr Johnson last night warned he had to ‘reserve the possibility’ of further restrictions to control the spread of Omicron. However he admitted the data was not clear enough to justify action now.
The PM has promised to consult parliament on any new legal curbs and it is highly unlikely that MPs could be recalled in time to act before the Christmas break.
A row erupted yesterday over modelling that had appeared to raise the threat of Christmas being ‘cancelled’ for a second year.
In forecasts leaked over the weekend, the Sage expert committee warned that without rapid action daily deaths could hit 6,000 in the worst case – and hospital admissions 10,000. But with huge uncertainty over the severity of Omicron, ministers, MPs and experts rejected the ‘implausible’ predictions.
Tory former leader Iain Duncan Smith referred to SAGE modeller Graham Medley as ‘Graham Meddler’ during an interview BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, although it was not clear if it was a slip of the tongue. Criticising blood-curdling claims of up to 6,000 deaths a day if there are no addition restrictions, Mr Duncan Smith said the government should only make a decision based on a ‘wider range of information on the effect of lockdown’.
‘We need to understand the effect of lockdown is dramatic across so many areas of people’s lives, which equates to the same as people going into hospital,’ he said. Sir Jeremy, head of the Wellcome Trust, said people could take personal responsibility.
‘Omicron is spreading unbelievably fast. It is a phenomenal variant transmission,’ he said.
‘There is great uncertainty about what is it going to lead to in terms of pressure on the health system, people going to hospital, particularly people dying, but also what impact is it going to have on the broader society, staff absences, the ability to have functioning other services, so there is great uncertainty.
‘My personal view is that I think we can wait at the moment until there are more restrictions formally placed.’
Mr Barclay said there had been a ‘robust discussion’ at Cabinet about how to respond to the Omicron threat.
“We are looking closely at the data, there is much we still don’t know about the severity of Omicron, how it leads to hospital admissions,’ he said.
“We are looking particularly at the London data, there is a higher prevalence of Omicron particularly in London.”
Asked if he had been among members of the Cabinet calling for more data, Mr Barclay said: “I think it is right that the Cabinet has a full and robust discussion.
“That is what people would expect. It is right that we look at the balance between protecting lives and livelihoods.”
Several ministers – including Mr Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – made clear they were unwilling to back further restrictions until there was better information on the impact of Omicron.
Mr Sunak is understood to have resisted measures that could cost the economy billions ‘off the back of data that is patchy’. The most vocal supporters of a strong response are believed to have been Communities Secretary Michael Gove and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
Afterwards Mr Johnson insisted the Government was monitoring the data ‘hour by hour’ and that the arguments for taking action were ‘very, very finely balanced’.
But he stressed there are still ‘uncertainties’ around the severity of the new strain, as well as the rate of hospital admissions associated with it and its impact on vaccines.
He added: ‘Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS. We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.’
Ministers were briefed at the virtual Cabinet meeting by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty. Ms Truss apparently demanded ministers were given ‘really thorough data’ before approving curbs, and insisted there must be ‘incontrovertible evidence that we need more restrictions’.
Other ministers voicing similar concerns included Mr Rees-Mogg, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack.
A Cabinet source said:
‘There is more data coming on Wednesday, so that should make hopefully the picture a bit clearer and decisions easier to make.’
Tory former chief whip Mark Harper said that ‘not telling the public what’s going on is unacceptable’ as he said ‘we can do so much better than this’.
Mr Johnson was under pressure from his SAGE experts to roll out extra curbs after they delivered dire warnings about what will happen if the PM fails to act urgently. But other experts today slammed as ‘fictitious’ projections of 6,000 daily Covid deaths and 10,000 hospitalisations this winter in a worst-case scenario. Coronavirus cases have also been around the 90,000 mark for four days now, after experts predicted they would double every two days.
It has also emerged that ministers are considering slashing isolation for those with Covid from 10 days to seven days due to fears Omicron will cripple the economy. According to Government modelling, up to 2million people could be catching the ultra-transmissible variant per day during the peak this winter. There are growing fears it could push the country into a de facto lockdown with so many isolating with mild illness, even if hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.
Sources say the change in policy is ‘being looked at’ and Health Secretary Sajid Javid is thought to be eager to shorten the isolation timeframe as hospitals and businesses struggle due to absent workers. The lack of a final decision by Mr Johnson on extra curbs means it now seems unlikely that further restrictions will be rolled out before Christmas but there are mounting fears of a crackdown immediately after December 25.
The PM has promised that MPs will get a vote on any additional rules but Parliament is now in recess and recalling the House of Commons, holding a debate and then voting would take an estimated 48 hours. Announcing curbs any later than today would therefore run the risk of people being told to follow new rules after they have already travelled to see family for Christmas.
The Times reported that Mr Johnson and the Cabinet delayed a decision because they were not yet convinced the latest Omicron data justified announcing new restrictions. However, the newspaper said the Government could opt to impose a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown in England after Christmas, potentially starting on December 28.
It was reported on Saturday that Whitehall officials had drawn up regulations which would effectively re-impose ‘Step 2’ of the PM’s lockdown exit roadmap for two weeks. That would mean a ban on indoor socialising and a return of the rule of six for outdoor gatherings. Bars, pubs and restaurants would be banned from serving people indoors.
The delay in Mr Johnson’s decision on extra curbs prompted a split within the Cabinet, with Sajid Javid warning ministers that no decision was a decision in itself. The Health Secretary asked experts to ‘kick the tyres’ of government modelling but they were unable to reassure him that the variant is less severe, reports the Times. But Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted that the public should be trusted to make their own decisions as to how best to protect themselves and the family, rather than imposing more restrictions. He also criticised SAGE modelling while saying that there was not enough evidence to suggests new Covid measures were necessary.
The Prime Minister convened the meeting of his top team as he faced a growing Cabinet revolt over potential further Covid rules. The PM had been presented with three options to tackle the variant amid surging case numbers, with the lowest level of intervention consisting of advice to limit household mixing indoors, according to The Telegraph.
The second level would see mandatory restrictions on household mixing, the return of social distancing and an 8pm curfew for pubs and restaurants while the third and toughest level would see a return to something close to a full lockdown. Mr Johnson is now considering his next move, knowing that any decision to tighten Covid rules will spark a furious Tory backlash.
Downing Street at lunchtime refused to be drawn on the proposals which are reportedly under consideration, with the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman telling reporters: ‘At this point we are still monitoring the data and keeping a very close eye on it… we would update if any decisions are taken.’
Whatever our position on the Pandemic, one thing is for certain, we cannot continue to close the economy down, a large number of businesses in the UK are on the brink and the current ‘lockdown by stealth’ that is the result of worst case scenarios being presented by SAGE has resulted in the hospitality industry almost closing it’s doors this Christmas.
Can the Government continue to pay people to sit at home? What about all those people who are not entitled to any help? What about all those businesses that fall through the cracks and are now finding themselves slowly heading towards bankruptcy?
There are some very difficult decisions to be made, but that is what a prime minister is elected to do, his job is to take on board all the evidence and make informed, sensible and prudent decisions and to then explain those decisions to the nation, not by enforcing laws based on vague excuses, but by winning the support of the nation, by earning their respect.
It has not helped that there has been so many allegations that the prime minister has not observed his own rules, if this is not true, we need a clear and comprehensive explanation, but if it is true, he must go. This is no time for the country to be led by a leader who does not have the faith and trust of the people. It was bad enough when he hesitated to make a decision about Matt Hancock, his efforts to dismiss the Health Minister breaking his own rules was a clear indication that he his ability to lead is questionable, I felt he should have gone there and then. We are in the midst of one of the greatest pandemic since the Spanish Flu, a century ago, this is not time for our leader to be lacking in credibility and support from the people.