Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter

Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter – Doctors accuse No10 of ‘wilful negligence’ for ruling out masks and WFH despite Sajid Javid warning daily Covid cases may soon breach 100,000 – as minister insists NHS pressure is ‘sustainable’ and denies talks about Plan C that could BAN households mixing

 

  • Plans could see bans on households mixing, as well as facemasks, WFH orders and vaccine passports 
  • Sajid Javid warned there could be 100,000 cases a day this winter at the Downing Street press conference
  • Health Secretary insisted ‘life is not back to normal’ and urged people to get their booster jabs 
  • Mr Javid also called on people to take precautions such as meeting outdoors, wearing masks and testing

Doctors have accused the Government of ‘wilful negligence’ for not to re-imposing face masks and WFH guidance despite warnings Covid cases could surge to 100,000 a day within weeks.

This week NHS bosses, trade unions and a slew of high profile scientists called for the country to take a tougher stance on coronavirus restrictions amid surging infection numbers and a lagging booster vaccine rollout.

But in a Downing Street press conference Health Secretary Sajid Javid held his nerve and insisted the pressure on hospitals was not yet ‘unsustainable’, in comments that angered health chiefs who warn the NHS is already starting to creak under the pressure of Covid, flu and backlogs caused by the pandemic.

Health Minister Edward Agar echoed his boss this morning, saying the NHS was under ‘sustainable pressure at the moment’ and that the current plan was ‘still working’.

But the Government has been accused of sleepwalking into another crisis and not heeding the warning of Sir Patrick Vallance who said last month that ministers must ‘go hard and go early’ with coronavirus restrictions this winter if there is a surge in cases.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the British Medical Association chief, said last night: ‘It is wilfully negligent of the Westminster Government not to be taking any further action to reduce the spread of infection, such as mandatory mask wearing, physical distancing and ventilation requirements in high-risk settings, particularly indoor crowded spaces.

‘The Westminster Government said it would enact “Plan B” to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed; as doctors working on the frontline, we can categorically say that time is now.

‘By the Health Secretary’s own admission we could soon see 100,000 cases a day and we now have the same number of weekly Covid deaths as we had during March, when the country was in lockdown. It is therefore incredibly concerning that he is not willing to take immediate action to save lives and to protect the NHS.’

Doctors are calling on ministers to bring in ‘Plan B’ — reserved for when the NHS comes under immense pressure —  which would see the return of face masks and advice to work from home, as well as the introduction of Covid passports for nightclubs and major events, which are already a staple in Scotland and Wales.

There were suggestions last night that ministers are considering a ‘Plan C’ if all else fails, which could include banning cross-household mixing at Christmas again. But Mr Agar denied those rumours this morning during a round of interviews.

In other Covid developments:    

  • The booster backlog is likely to grow as more patients become eligible for their third jab, figures suggest;
  • Mr Javid announced the Government has bought hundreds of thousands of pills to treat Covid; 
  • It was revealed the UK’s top scientific advisors only met twice in the last three months;
  • Mr Kwarteng said holidays will not be cancelled again and dismissed the idea of another lockdown;
  • Figures showed there are nearly a third fewer mass vaccination hubs in operation now compared to when the original two-dose Covid vaccine programme was at the peak of its powers in April;
  • GPs ‘out-and-out rejected’ No10’s £250million proposals to give patients more face-to-face appointments; 
  • NHS chief Amanda Pritchard said complacency among older patients is to blame for slow booster rollout.
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the head of the British Medical Association, yesterday called on ministers to bring back Covid restrictions including face masks and working from home immediately. But Health minister Edward Agar (right) said today that the NHS was under ‘sustainable’ pressure and that the current plan was still working

Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter

Health Secretary Sajid Javid batted away calls to re-impose Covid restrictions last night at his first Downing Street press conference. He said the NHS remained under ‘sustainable’ pressure.

Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter

Daily infections are currently on the brink of passing the 50,000 milestone for the first time in months, with Department of Health bosses on Wednesday recording 49,139 positive tests – up 15 per cent on the previous week

Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter

Only around 4.05million(purple line) out of the 8.7million eligible people (green line) in England have received the crucial third dose, prompting ministers to urge people to come forward for their inoculations

Mr Agar said today that the current plan for tackling Covid was still working. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘What Sajid (Javid, the Health Secretary) has highlighted now is that we are facing a challenging period – winter.

‘People are indoors, infection rates are rising, and I think what he’s done is levelled early with people, here is what we’re seeing, but there are ways you can… the single biggest way you can impact on that and mitigate it is to have the jabs, that’s the thing.

‘Plan A in that sense, if you want to call it that, is still working. But what he highlighted is it’s a race — and I’ve used this phrase with you, I think, before when I’ve been on your programme — it is a race between the vaccines, and getting those in people’s arms, and the virus.

‘We’re still winning that race at the moment, but it’s narrowing, that lead is narrowing. So what we need to do is that sprint for the line.’

Mr Agar said ministers have not set a threshold that infections, hospitalisations and deaths would need to hit before ministers would consider re-imposing restrictions this morning.

He told Sky News it would not ‘be appropriate to set an arbitrary figure, X number of infections, X number of hospitalisations’.

‘We need to look at all this in the round, we need to look at the death rate, absolutely.

‘We need to look at that booster rollout programme… vaccination programme… vaccination rates in young people, the 12 to 15-year-olds, because we’re seeing in that school-age population, that’s where we’re seeing actually the biggest increases driving these infections.’

He added: ‘I can’t give you a simple, here is a sort of black and white answer, here is a binary line, because it takes… there’s a whole range of factors we’ll take into consideration.’

Asked about reports that they would ban mixing between households as a ‘last resort’, the health minister told Sky News: ‘That’s not something I’m aware of, I checked it out and I’m told that is not a story with foundation.

‘Of course, as a Government, you look at — as we’ve done with our Plan B — alternatives and ways that you might, if you needed to, start easing that pressure.

‘The specifics of that and what was mooted in it as I understand it, as I only glanced at it I’m afraid on my way in this morning, about limiting household mixing, things like that… is that it isn’t something that is being actively considered.’

NHS Confederation boss Matthew Taylor also called on ministers to press ahead with a ‘Plan B’ yesterday or risk derailing efforts to tackle the record-breaking 5million-strong patient backlog. He said: ‘The message from health leaders is clear — it is better to act now, rather than regret it later.’

SAGE member and former chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport last night warned the current restrictions were probably ‘not holding things’.

He told BBC Newsnight: ‘Am I worried? Yes. It’s very, very delicately poised. We’ve got a lot of cases at the moment. Winter is coming, flu is probably coming. It’s not a good place to be. The evidence is that the current measures are probably not holding things.’

The boss of NHS Wales has also warned that the country’s health service is under the most intense pressure in its history. It is for the Welsh Government to decide whether to re-impose restrictions in Wales.

No10 shelved almost all remaining Covid restrictions in England on July 19 amid a successful vaccination roll out that has seen more than nine in ten adults get two doses.

A booster programme was launched last month to top up waning immunity against the virus in older populations.

But the drive has been sluggish to get going prompting calls to speed up the campaign, including from former Prime Minister Tony Blair who said ministers should aim to deliver 500,000 third doses a day.

On Tuesday, ministers extended emergency Covid powers for another six months — covering the winter — that would give them the ability to bring back restrictions and impose another lockdown.

Yesterday Britain recorded another 49,139 Covid cases, just shy of breaking through the grim 50,000 milestone and a surge of 15 per cent on the same time last week. Deaths jumped by nearly a third to 179.

Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter

The above graph shows the pace of the booster vaccination drive. It reveals the number of doses given out by day in October (orange bars) and the total number of boosters given out over time (red line). This is compared against the number of second doses given out in April (blue line). People who got their second dose in April would now be due to get a top up dose

Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter

The number of patients waiting for routine hospital treatment hit 5.6million in July, the highest figure since records began in 2007. And health chiefs have warned the backlog is going to get much worse before it gets better, with projections that it could soar up to 13million by the end of the year if no action is taken.

Laying into ministers last night, Dr Nagpul said they had ‘taken (their) foot off the brake, giving the impression that the pandemic is behind us and that life has returned to normal’.

He blasted the current infection rate as ‘unacceptable’ and said hospital admissions and deaths were at a level ‘unheard of in similar European nations’.

Britain’s Covid infection rate currently stands at 446.2 cases per 100,000 people, the highest in Europe, and up by almost half on the same time last month.

Scientists warned today that because many cases are asymptomatic — display no symptoms — the UK may already be very near 100,000 cases a day.

Dr Chris Smith, a virologist at Cambridge University, told BBC Breakfast the country was ‘probably already close to 100,000 cases a day anyway, we just don’t know about lots of them’.

He added: ‘The trend at the moment in cases is upwards, but the more reassuring trend for the moment is how many people are becoming severely unwell, how many people are losing their lives and that number, thankfully, does remain very, very low, and that’s a direct testimony to the performance of the vaccines.’

‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson predicted cases could spiral to more than 100,000 a day in June. But they turned around in early July and started falling.

At the Covid press briefing last night, Mr Javid threatened to reimpose restrictions if people don’t get vaccinated and fail to make behavioural changes.

‘Am I saying that if we don’t do our bit, get vaccinated, all those behavioural changes that we can make, that we are more likely to face restrictions as we head into winter…? Then I am saying that,’ the Health Secretary warned. ‘I think we’ve been really clear that we’ve all got a role to play.

‘If not enough people get their booster jabs, if not enough of those people that were eligible for the original offer, the five million I’ve talked about that remain unvaccinated, if they don’t come forward, if people don’t wear masks when they really should in a really crowded place with lots of people that they don’t normally hang out with, if they’re not washing their hands and stuff, it’s going to hit us all.

‘And it would of course make it more likely we’re going to have more restrictions.’

With cases rising, Mr Blair said the Government needed to act ‘rapidly and decisively’ to avoid the need for another lockdown as winter approaches.

A report by the former prime minister’s think-tank, the Tony Blair Institute, said ministers should set a daily target for booster jabs, reactivate the vaccine infrastructure set up earlier in the year and start using the AstraZeneca vaccine for boosters.

It said the Government should also aim to ensure half of all 12 to 15-year-olds are vaccinated by the start of December while making the approval of vaccines for the under-12s a priority.

And it called on ministers to ‘urgently explore’ the options for introducing a Covid passport while reinstating mandatory face coverings for crowded indoor public spaces.

Mr Blair said that without action now, there was a danger that further restrictions would be required in the weeks ahead.

Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter

‘Everyone hopes that the damage of Covid-19 is substantially behind us even as we battle its legacy,’ he said.

‘However, the worst that could happen is that we go back into anything approaching the lockdowns we experienced during the past 18 months. We’re not saying this will happen. But the risk is there now.

‘Once well ahead of the rest of Europe, we’re now behind Germany, France and Italy in terms of cases and even vaccinations.

‘So, from an abundance of caution, a sensible sentiment given the history of Covid-19, we believe the Government should rapidly and decisively accelerate measures to give us the best possible chance of avoiding the disease spiralling again. ‘

Yesterday, the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that he would ‘rule out’ another national lockdown being imposed, in the biggest sign that the Government is not planning to pull the trigger on the drastic measure unless the situation changes rapidly.

Asked on Sky News about some experts saying a further shutdown could not be discounted.

He replied: ‘No, I would rule that out. Throughout this process, there’ve been people saying the lockdown was unnecessary, there have been other people saying we should continue the lockdown. We’ve really plotted a path between those two extremes.’

Sajid Javid also ruled out another lockdown during his first Covid press conference last night.

Mr Javid said that while the NHS was seeing ‘greater pressure’, he was confident the pressure was not ‘unsustainable’.

He said ministers would ‘stay vigilant’ because cases could still rise to 100,000 a day this winter.

Mr Javid used the press conference to urge Britons to come forward for their booster jabs in a bid to speed up the sluggish vaccine campaign – which has only seen a quarter of care home residents revaccinated.

He said that the country was still ahead in the race against the virus thanks to the initial Covid vaccination effort, but claimed that waning immunity meant that lead was ‘narrowing’.

Pleading with the country to get their booster, Mr Javid added that not only would a booster save lives, it would also ‘protect our freedoms’. ‘Boosters could not be more important,’ he said.

Asked if people face a tightening of restrictions if they do not get boosters or take care indoors, Mr Javid said: ‘Am I saying that if we don’t do our bit, get vaccinated, all those behavioural changes that we can make, that we are more likely to face restrictions as we head into winter…? Then I am saying that.

‘I think we’ve been really clear that we’ve all got a role to play.’

Meanwhile, the seven-day average for cases is standing at 44,145 infections per day – the highest level for almost three months.

Experts fear the growing outbreak may have been exacerbated by an even more infectious offshoot of Delta called AY4.2. The proportion of cases made up by the sub-strain have doubled in a month, official figures show.

Mr Javid said deaths ‘remain mercifully low’ at the moment, but added: ‘We’ve always known that the winter months would pose the greatest threat to our road to recovery.’

He added: ‘Thanks to the vaccination programme, the link between hospitalisations and deaths has significantly weakened, but it’s not broken.

‘So we must all remember that this virus will be with us for the long term and remains a threat to our loved ones, and a threat to the progress that we’ve made in getting our nation closer to normal life.’

Mr Javid also announced the UK has bought hundreds of thousands of ‘game-changing’ pills that can be used to treat Britons with Covid at home this winter.

The UK has bought 480,000 antiviral molnupiravir pills made by US pharmaceutical company Merck and 250,000 PF-073 courses from Pfizer. They still need to be approved by the UK’s medical regulator before Britons can get their hands on the drugs.

Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential 'Plan C' this winter
Ministers are threatening to reimpose Covid restrictions under a potential ‘Plan C’ this winter
This map shows the proportion of cases that were AY.4.2 in England in the fortnight to June 26, when it was first detected

This map shows the proportion of cases that were AY.4.2 in the fortnight to July 31. Darker colours indicate a higher percentage of cases

The above maps show the proportion of Covid cases that were the Delta sub-variant AY.4.2 in the fortnight to June 26 (left) and the fortnight to July 31 (right). Darker colours indicate that more cases of the sub-variant had been detected

This map shows the proportion of cases that were AY.4.2 in the fortnight to September 25

This map shows the proportion of cases that were down to AY.4.2 in the fortnight to October 9, the latest available

The above maps show the proportion of cases that were AY.4.2 in the fortnight to September 25 (left) and October 9 (right). The darker colours indicate that a higher proportion of infections were down to this sub-variant.

Asked about unsustainable pressure on the health service, Mr Javid said: ‘We don’t believe that the pressures that are currently faced by the NHS are unsustainable.

‘Don’t get me wrong, there are huge pressures especially in A&E, in primary care, for example, as well, but at this point we don’t believe they are unsustainable.

‘If we feel at any point it’s becoming unsustainable then the department, together with our friends in the NHS, we won’t hesitate to act.’

Mr Javid reiterated that the Government will not be implementing its Plan B strategy ‘at this point’.

He added: ‘We’ll be staying vigilant, preparing for all eventualities while strengthening our vital defences that can help us fight back against this virus.’

Praising deals for new two antiviral treatments that can cut the risk of death for the most vulnerable as ‘great news’, he said: ‘But we cannot be complacent when Covid-19 remains such a potent threat.’

The Health Secretary said England had reached a ‘milestone’ of four million top-up jabs on Wednesday, adding: ‘None of us want to go backwards now.

‘So we must all play our part in this national mission, and think about what we can do to make a difference. That means getting the jab when the time comes, whether it’s for Covid-19 or flu.’

He stressed that, aside from vaccinations, people can take other – now voluntary – measures such as meeting outdoors where possible, ensuring good ventilation, wearing masks in crowded spaces and taking lateral flow tests.

He said: ‘With winter soon upon us, these little steps make a big difference. And they’re more important now than they have ever been.’

Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said the UK is going into winter with a ‘really high level’ of cases.

‘What we can see is that the cases now are almost as high as they were in July and actually not far off where they were last winter,’ she said.

‘What we are not seeing is that dip down again at the other side of the peak and that is really important because we are kicking off the winter at a really high level of cases.

‘Fortunately that is not currently working through into serious disease and deaths.’

However, she later said the last two days have seen the highest death rates for some time, adding that the number of deaths are ‘moving in the wrong direction’.

It comes as the chief executive of the NHS in Wales, which sets its own Covid restrictions, said the service is under the most intense pressure in its history.

Dr Andrew Goodall said Covid had led to the system running ‘at the hottest we’ve seen’, with record backlogs of treatments and demands for other care.

Dr Goodall said: ‘It does feel this is the most challenging period. And we can see that in the data. Rather than just focusing on coronavirus we’ve got the NHS trying to restore a range of activities across all its settings.’

He said there were currently 700 Covid patients in hospital beds alongside record ambulance calls, high levels of emergency demand and a busiest-ever primary care sector in Wales.

There have been suggestions that the variant may be elevated to 'Variant under Investigation'. If this is the case the World Health Organization is likely to give it the name 'Nu', which is the next letter in the Greek alphabet

There have been suggestions that the variant may be elevated to ‘Variant under Investigation’. If this is the case the World Health Organization is likely to give it the name ‘Nu’, which is the next letter in the Greek alphabet.

The graph shows the proportion of cases sequenced in England that are the new subvariant AY.4.2 (yellow) and Delta (blue). Delta became dominant in the UK in May, overtaking the previously dominant Alpha strain (purple)

The graph shows the proportion of cases sequenced in England that are the new subvariant AY.4.2 (yellow) and Delta (blue). Delta became dominant in the UK in May, overtaking the previously dominant Alpha strain (purple)