Sajid Javid refuses to rule out return to lockdown in response to Omicron variant of Covid

MPs to vote on Tuesday on new restrictions to last until Christmas week

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 29 November 2021 18:45
Sajid Javid refuses to rule out new lockdown in response to Omicron

Health secretary Sajid Javid has refused to rule out a new lockdown in England in response to the threat of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Mr Javid told MPs than no-one wanted to see a return to measures of the sort deployed when the coronavirus first emerged last year.

But he was unable to give a positive response to Tory MP Richard Drax’s plea for a pledge “that he will never ever go back to locking this country down”.

Mr Javid was speaking as he outlined new requirements to wear face-coverings in shops and public transport in England, as well as 10 days’ isolation for anyone coming into contact with a known carrier of the Omicron strain.

The restrictions, coming into effect from 4am on Tuesday, will be reviewed in three weeks’ time on 21 December, with the possibility that they will be lifted in time for Christmas, Mr Javid told the Commons.

But some Conservative lockdown sceptics raised doubts over the move, with Sir Desmond Swayne telling the Commons that the evidence for the efficacy of face-coverings was “mumbo-jumbo”.

Swayne later said he was “exempt from wearing a mask due to my genetic predisposition for liberty”.

And Mr Drax told the health secretary: “Covid is not going to go away. It’s here for the rest of our lives. The country has to learn to live with this disease now. It is the only way forward.

“Can you please reassure me, the House and the country that he will never, ever go back to locking down this country?”

Mr Javid stopped well short of ruling out a return to lockdown in his response, telling Mr Drax only that: “No-one wants to see those kinds of measures”.

MPs will vote on the new restrictions for England on Tuesday, hours after they actually come into effect.

There were calls for the Commons to be recalled from its Christmas recess to debate the planned review, with Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen warning that extending the restrictions without a vote would amount to “government by diktat”.

Mr Javid said that the level of risk posed by Omicron remained unclear, and that the three-week restrictions would help provide time for scientists and experts to work out how dangerous it is.

But his predecessor as health secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the emergence of Omicron was “a symptom of the failure of Western countries to make sure that vaccines are distributed adequately around the world”.

Mr Javid said that the decision by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to extend booster vaccines to 18-49 year-olds and to reduce the interval between second jab and booster to a minimum three months marked a new measures are a “huge step up” for the vaccine programme.

The move - accepted by ministers “in full” - will almost double the numbers able to get a booster dose, he said. It is expected to result in a sharp increase in numbers of jabs from the 6 million who had been expected to receive them over the next few weeks.

Jeremy Hunt says Omicron is 'a symptom of the failure of Western countries to share vaccines around the world'

Mr Javid said that there were “no plans that I am aware of that would require us to close schools early” as a result of Omicron, adding: “I think that would be very detrimental to the education of children.”

Shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, deputising for Jon Ashworth after he tested positive for Covid, told MPs: “This variant is a wake-up call.

“The pandemic is not over, we need to act with speed to bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay and it is also an important reminder that no-one is safe until all of us are safe.”

Dr Allin-Khan called for pre-departure testing to prevent people with Covid arriving in the UK.

She added: “We support the decision to introduce masks on public transport and in shops, but we believe this should never have been abandoned in the first place. Keeping masks in place would always have been our Plan A.”

And she said that mandatory mask-use should be extended to hospitality venues like pubs.

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