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Ministers defy Covid Plan B call: We won’t return to lockdowns, says Kwasi Kwarteng

·4-min read
People wear face masks as they exit Piccadilly Circus underground station, in London (AP)

A cabinet minister defied scientists and NHS bosses on Wednesday by rejecting calls to trigger the Government’s “Plan B” tighter Covid restrictions amid growing fears of a winter health crisis.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng “categorically” ruled out new lockdowns, describing talk of a return to tough restrictions in England as “unhelpful”. He also encouraged workers to go ahead and book Christmas parties, saying the festive season will see parties “as usual”.

But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Government’s vaccination advisory body the JCVI, warned in an interview with the Standard that the country was “very close to the edge of the cliff”. He called on the Government to be more vocal in encouraging people to wear face coverings indoors, to avoid large gatherings inside and to keep taking lateral flow tests.

“In England in particular the subliminal message is that it’s all over and everyone has gone back to normal,” said Professor Finn of Bristol University. “This is not over. There’s more viral transmission going on now than at any other point in the pandemic.” His warning came as:

Covid cases in the UK continued to charge ahead of other major European nations. Britain reported more than 40,000 positive cases for the seventh day in a row on Tuesday and recorded 223 deaths — the highest number of daily fatalities since March.

Watch: COVID-19: Govt attacked for refusing to move to Plan B, as doctors warn action is needed now

Mayor Sadiq Khan said he wants the Government to reintroduce the law making masks compulsory on public transport. He told the Standard: “I don’t envisage and I would not support another lockdown. I think we can avoid that. That is why I am encouraging the Government to do what they can to encourage Plan B, which is more face mask wearing, more boosters.”

England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty appealed to people to get the booster jab. He tweeted: “Covid-19 cases are rising and winter is drawing closer. 1) If you have not been vaccinated, now is the time. 2) If you are offered a booster please take up the offer. 3) Ventilation, masks in crowded indoor spaces and hand washing remain important.”

The NHS Confederation urged the Government to bring back Covid restrictions now to avoid “stumbling into a crisis”.

Professor Stephen Reicher — a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, which feeds into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies — said the prospect of further lockdowns could not be discounted. 

The Government has so far dismissed appeals to introduce its Plan B Covid restrictions which include mandatory wearing of face masks in crowded areas, the reintroduction of working from home and the use of vaccine passports.

Ministers say the UK’s vaccine booster programme and plan to immunise children aged between 12 and 15 will avoid the need for tighter restrictions even as the NHS battles winter flu and a backlog of non-Covid treatment.

Asked on Sky News if the Government should consider a future lockdown, Mr Kwarteng said: “No, I would rule that out. We don’t want to go back into lockdown or into further restrictions.”

He said the Government was watching the data closely but Covid vaccines had prevented a return to high death rates seen earlier in the pandemic. 

“The critical thing… is about hospitalisation and also deaths, and, thank God, those figures are much, much lower than they were, certainly, at the beginning of the year,” Mr Kwarteng said.

But he admitted that the vaccine roll-out for children and the booster programme needed to accelerate. 

Figures show 18,797 boosters given in London on Monday, taking its total to 492,754. Only 12.6 per cent of the city’s 12 to 15-year-olds have been vaccinated. 

On Covid cases, London lags other areas with the number testing positive falling by almost 500 on the previous day to 3,317. But the number of Covid patients in London hospitals rose to 965.

Professor Finn said relying on the immunisation programme to deal with rising infection levels would not work because the vaccines being given to people did not stop transmission.

Matthew Taylor, NHS Confederation chief executive, said the country was facing “a perfect storm” this winter.

Watch: Government branded ‘wilfully negligent’ for refusing Plan B

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