Government rules out Covid lockdown and curbs despite NHS chiefs’ call for ‘Plan B’ restrictions

Lockdown talk ‘completely unhelpful’, says cabinet minister who insists current approach ‘working’

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 20 October 2021 07:27
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Tory minister rules out winter Covid lockdown

Boris Johnson’s government is ruling out another Covid lockdown or any “further restrictions” this winter, despite NHS leaders’ call for ministers to enforce “Plan B” curbs.

Amid another surge in Covid cases, the NHS Confederation has urged ministers to implement the back-up strategy – including mandatory face coverings and asking people to work from home.

But business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the government was not interested in bringing back curbs. “We don’t want to go into lockdown or further restrictions,” he told Sky News on Wednesday.

Follow Covid news - live: NHS chiefs urge government to implement winter ‘plan B’

The cabinet minister said discussions of more lockdowns or restrictions on holidays were “completely unhelpful” – but conceded the government would have to do better on the rollout of booster jabs.

The slow uptake of coronavirus booster jabs is “something that we really need to address”, Kwarteng said, urging those eligible to take up the offer of a third dose of the vaccine.

Kwarteng has admitted that the vaccine rollout to 12 to 15-year-olds also needs to pick up speed. “It is working, but we just need a faster rollout.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, has urged the government to implement the Plan B back-up strategy – including making face coverings compulsory in some settings, asking people to work from home, and bringing in vaccine passports.

“It is time for the government to enact Plan B of its strategy without delay because without pre-emptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis,” said the leader of the membership organisation for NHS authorities and trusts.

Taylor added: “We are right on the edge – and it is the middle of October. It would require an incredible amount of luck for us not to find ourselves in the midst of a profound crisis over the next three months.”

Professor Stephen Reicher – a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, which feeds into the Sage advisory body – has said the prospect of further lockdowns could not be discounted.

“No, I would rule that out,” said Kwarteng when asked about the possibility of more lockdowns, before claiming the government’s current approach to curbs was “working ... we’re confident we can manage this outbreak well”.

Kwarteng also said it was “absolutely” worth it to pay a deposit on a Christmas party amid concerns fresh coronavirus restrictions could be introduced.

Asked on Times Radio whether it was wise to pay money towards a party, he said: “Absolutely. I think I already have, we’ve got some arrangements in place and I look forward to having a Christmas party as usual.”

Alarm has been raised after the government announced on Tuesday that a further 223 people died after testing positive for Covid – the highest number since early March.

There was just over 43,000 more lab-confirmed Covid cases in the UK – almost eight times more than the new daily cases recorded in early March.

Despite the rising numbers of cases and deaths, the government’s Sage scientists have abandoned their weekly meetings are only meeting once a month for talks, according to the i newspaper.

Downing Street has said it is keeping a “very close eye” on increasing numbers of cases, and acknowledged there are signs that the number of hospital admissions and deaths are also rising.

But the prime minister has told his cabinet that he believes the government’s current plan is keeping the virus under control.

Labour called on the government to spell out what levels of hospitalisations, infections or deaths would trigger the activation of Plan B.

“What we’ve seen consistently is mixed messaging from the government,” said a senior Labour spokesperson. “What the public wants is the certainty of knowing what the situation is that will trigger Plan B. The government hasn’t been clear on that, and it’s for them to set out what they regard as the conditions that would make that necessary.”

The spokesperson said ministers had failed to “get a grip” on the flagging vaccination programme and called for more use of pop-up clinics and community pharmacies to deliver jabs.

“With the booster programme clearly stalling, ministers need to get a grip and also accelerate the vaccine rollout for children,” he said. “Neither of these programmes are going at the speed that is required at the moment.

“And there is also concern that the flu vaccination programme is also slower than government targets in terms of rollout. This is important because the flu vaccination is a vital tool in bringing down hospital admissions to ensure that the NHS can cope this winter.”

A Downing Street spokesperson said that the government had been clear in its winter plan that it would not be setting out numerical thresholds for moving from Plan A to Plan B.

He added: “We are sticking to the autumn and winter plan that we’ve set out. You’ve got the contents of Plan A and Plan B and there’s no mention in them of any further lockdowns and there are no plans (for one).”

The spokesperson denied that the rollout of jabs for 12-15 year-olds was struggling, and said that anyone in this age group wanting a vaccination was able to get one.

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