Sajid Javid has refused to rule out introducing tougher Covid restrictions in England before Christmas, leading to demands for Boris Johnson to urgently address the public on the government’s strategy.
Describing the Omicron situation as “fast-moving”, the health secretary stressed there were “no guarantees in this pandemic” and that the government was keeping measures under review.
Scientists have urged ministers not to allow hospitalisations to “go through the roof” before action is taken, warning that delaying the introduction of stricter rules may cause greater harm to the economy.
Labour leader Keir Starmer, who was given a briefing by England’s chief medical officer professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance on Sunday, accused the prime minister of being “asleep at the wheel”.
But it is understood Mr Johnson wants to first see the impact of Covid “plan B” measures introduced last week, including mandatory mask-wearing and Covid passes, alongside the booster jab campaign, before bringing in tougher restrictions.
Last night it was reported the prime minister is considering limits on indoor mixing as a measure.
However, as many as 10 cabinet ministers are reported to be against any further measures and have cast doubt on the accuracy of Sage modelling that paints a gloomy picture of up to 1,000 deaths a day.
Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Javid starkly declined to rule out further measures being introduced within days, insisting ministers were still “assessing the situation” and that a “lot of uncertainty” remained.
Pressed on whether he could rule out a circuit breaker or further restrictions before Christmas, the health secretary said: “There are no guarantees in this pandemic... At this point, we just have to keep everything under review.”
He confirmed that if new measures are required, parliament would be recalled to approve them – just days after Mr Johnson suffered the biggest revolt of his premiership over the introduction of Covid passes for large venues in England.
Mr Javid also described papers released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) over the weekend as “sobering”, after it was warned tougher restrictions were needed to prevent a peak of 3,000 hospitalisations a day in England.
On Sunday, the UK recorded 82,886 new cases of Covid while the mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has declared a major incident in the capital, told the BBC the NHS could “collapse” if measures are brought in too late.
And Sage stressed in the document that infections were likely to be much higher than the government’s official dashboard, saying: “It is almost certain that are now hundreds of thousands of new Omicron infections per day.”
Professor Peter Openshaw, a new member of the advisory group, warned on Sunday: “We are absolutely clear that if we are going to have an effect with restrictions you need to act early.
“If you delay you only cause a bigger surge in cases and more damage to prosperity, to freedoms and industry.”
Another member of the body, professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said the timing was crucial. “We can’t wait for hospitalisations to go through the roof before we do something about it, because by then it’s too late”.
Sir Keir said on Sunday: “The prime minister has been asleep at the wheel since he received the latest Sage advice.”
And he went on to say: “The public want to know the government has got a grip but tragically Boris Johnson is so distracted by his own internal party pressures that he is unable to provide the public health leadership this country needs.”
“We need to hear practical steps from the government on how they are going to tackle the spread of Omicron, support businesses and protect our public services,” he added. “Labour stands ready to support the measures we need but the prime minister is too weak to lead his divided party.”
As some members of the public limit their interactions ahead of Christmas Day, there has also been growing concern about the struggles facing the hospitality and nighttime industry due to mass cancellations without extra financial support from the Treasury.
The Liberal Democrats, who have demanded a virtual recall of parliament this week over the Covid situation, urged the chancellor to deliver an emergency budget to support firms on the “brink of collapse”.
The party’s health spokesperson Daisy Cooper told The Independent: “Boris Johnson needs to show leadership instead of ducking responsibility.
“He should address a virtual parliament and the public and explain what additional Covid measures may be needed, including extra support businesses.
“Businesses have already been hung out to dry by the government’s mixed messaging – now it looks like the same could happen to our NHS. The public deserves answers and they need them now.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies