Covid: Ministers put off decisions on restrictions and mandatory masks for two weeks

Holding back on restrictions comes as some experts and the Labour Party have called for measures to be introduced

Anna Isaac
Wednesday 27 October 2021 06:31

Related video: UK encourages booster jabs, resists new virus restrictions

Ministers will not make a decision on Covid-19 restrictions for two weeks until the impact of half-term on infections can be seen, The Independent understands.

The measures under consideration include restricting household mixing indoors this winter, as data modelling suggests that working from home and mandatory mask wearing might not be enough to avoid an increase in hospital admissions.

The UK reported 263 deaths on Tuesday, a higher number than any day since 3 March at the tail end of the second wave, when 315 were reported.

It comes amid an increasing clamour from experts and politicians to impose measures, including social distancing, as soon as possible. Labour has leant its backing to imposing plan-B measures and called on the government to enact it without “dither and delay”.

“We think we should follow the science – if the scientists are saying work from home and masks, we should do that,” Labour’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves said on Sunday.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), also speaking on Sunday, said that the government must not be “complacent” about the rising rate of hospitalisations and deaths. Meanwhile, mayor of London Sadiq Khan has called on people to “urgently reconsider” mask wearing.

However, measures, such as mandatory mask wearing and working from home – which fall under the government’s plan B, are unlikely to be enough on their own, according to sources familiar with modelling the impact of Covid restrictions.

This means the government may be forced to go further, if the rollout of booster jabs is not fast enough to combat the waning of previous vaccine doses, particularly among the over-50s.

Delays to imposing some restrictions also mean that more moderate measures will be less effective at containing the virus, according to the previously mentioned Whitehall sources.

Speaking at a vaccination centre last Friday, prime minister Boris Johnson said that the government keeps “all measures under constant review”, but he added that “the numbers that we're seeing at the moment are fully in line with what we expected in the autumn and winter plan”.

The prime minister said: “I’ve got to tell you at the moment that we see absolutely nothing to indicate that that is on the cards at all.”

The fresh details about which measures are under consideration follow warnings from Professor Lucy Chappell, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Health and Social Care, at a parliamentary committee on Tuesday. The adviser said that further measures beyond plan B had been “proposed” but these had not been “extensively worked up”. She confirmed these had been referred to as a plan C.

Prof Chappell also told MPs that there is “no single metric” that would lead to plan B being enacted, as MPs expressed their frustration at the lack of information on the decision-making process in the days ahead.

The Independent understands these measures which go beyond plan B include limits on mixing in pubs, cafes and restaurants, and in homes. This is because the impact of asking those who can to work from home has been dramatically reduced as the workforce has stuck with home working several days a week even after restrictions were lifted.

This change in behaviour means the limitations of plan B, such as working from home, have become more acute than when it was originally devised. And while some workers have cut down on their days in the office, they are content to travel to socialise in crowded indoor settings.

There will be “a bit of a crunch moment” in the two weeks after half-term concludes to see whether the infection rate climbs sharply and feeds through into considerable numbers over-50s without boosters being hospitalised.

Over-50s are more likely to have medical complications and waning protection from vaccines because of when they were jabbed.

It is this reluctance to go to the office but eagerness to go to the pub that means that the power of a work from home request is “weaker compared to older modelling, and it wasn’t that strong before”, one Whitehall source said.

Other data, including footfall figures gathered by Google show that while the population is concerned about infection rates, people are not moderating behaviour in the same way as during previous periods of higher infections.

Previously, as infections have risen and ahead of the government imposition of restrictions, people had already moderated their behaviour and started to be more cautious. Now, the vaccine roll out and a “dulling effect” means that people are less concerned about mixing with others.

“This is forcing a binary if there is a sharp increase in hospitalisations, and if there is a slow roll out of booster vaccines in the coming weeks,” a source familiar with government Covid planning said. “It’s Freedom Day or it’s Plan C, with significant restrictions on mixing in indoor settings,” they said. “There would need to be a vaccine passport system ready now, with far greater uptake, for it to have a decent impact. It’s too late for that.”

Adaptations to allow for home-working mean that the economic fallout from this restriction would be far lower than previously assumed, too. The Politico website reported that a Treasury impact assessment of five months of plan B measures could cost as much as £18bn.

Economists told The Independent that it was hard to judge what restrictions would mean for future growth, but that companies have adapted to greater home working.

“Each time the impediment on economic activity from lockdown appears to reduce,” said Kallum Pickering, senior economist at Berenberg bank. “I don’t think we can really speculate what kind of policies might be needed because these situations can move very fast as we’ve learned, but I am quite confident that if we did have renewed restrictions, the [economic] impact would be temporary.

“There’s no reason to think the economy wouldn’t bounce back,” he added.

There was little reason to think that plan B on its own would be “devastating or transformational”, said James Smith, research director at the Resolution Foundation, a think tank. However, greater measures would likely force the government to reinstate previous tranches of economic support, such as furlough.

“Being clear about at what points [in terms of hospitalisations] the government would start implementing plan B or even C, would be really helpful.”

A government spokesperson said: "We knew the coming months would be challenging – this is exactly why we set out our Covid plan for autumn and winter.

“We are monitoring all the data closely, and the prime minister has been clear that it does not yet show that plan B is necessary. But it is ready should we need to act to avoid a rise in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

“Our focus remains on our booster campaign, vaccinating 12-15 year olds, and encouraging those who haven’t yet come forward to have their jab.”

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