RETURN OF THE DOOM SQUAD
Boris sets out Winter Plan insisting Covid ‘far from over’ ++ No 10 refuses to rule out new lockdown ++ Whitty warns of pressure on NHS and schools
BORIS Johnson will warn today the pandemic is ‘far from over’ as he sets out a strategy that could see the return of virus curbs.
The ‘Covid Winter Plan’ includes compulsory masks, working from home and some social distancing if the NHS is under threat.
No 10 even refused to rule out another lockdown, saying draconian measures may be needed ‘as a last resort’.
Vaccine passports will be retained as an option, just 48 hours after health Secretary Sajid Javid said they would ‘not be going ahead’. And, in a gloomy assessment, Chris Whitty warned yesterday that hospitals and schools faced another winter of disruption.
Ministers, who hope Covid jabs will avert the risk of a lockdown, yesterday accepted the chief medical officer’s advice that children aged 12 to 15 should be offered doses.
Secondary pupils are to be
offered jabs at school from next week. Government scientists will today also give the green light for booster shots for the over-50s, starting this month.
Mr Johnson said he would be setting out ‘a clear plan for the autumn and winter, when the virus has a natural advantage, to protect the gains we have made’.
He added: ‘The pandemic is far from over, but thanks to our phenomenal vaccine programme, new treatments and testing we are able to live with the virus without significant restrictions on our freedoms.’
Professor Whitty said: ‘Anybody who believes the big risk of Covid is all in the past and it’s all too late to be making a difference has not understood where we are going to head as we go into autumn and winter. There will continue to be challenges and pressure on the NHS and continue to be disruption to education.’ The warnings came as:
■ It emerged that parental consent will be sought for children’s jabs but will not be needed if healthcare workers believe the child competent to decide;
■ New figures revealed just 1 per cent of Covid deaths in the first seven months of this year involved the fully vaccinated;
■ Daily cases were down 25 per cent on the previous week, falling to 30,825 along with 61 further deaths;
■ Travel chiefs called for double-jabbed travellers to be exempt from costly tests as figures showed Heathrow had tumbled down the airport league;
■ Plans to buy 100million vaccine doses from French firm Valneva were scrapped;
■ Mr Johnson placed plans for a Cabinet reshuffle on the back burner.
Downing Street is relatively relaxed about high infection levels, pointing out that the average of 30,000 a day is well below the 100,000 predicted by some in July. But they are increasingly concerned by rising hospital admissions. Another 1,000 were recorded yesterday and the total in hospital stands at 8,256 – a 37 per cent increase over the past month.
Pressure on other NHS services is expected to start to become intense if the total hits 10,000.
Whitehall exercises conducted over the summer warned that schools and care homes, as well as the NHS, are both vulnerable to a surge in cases this autumn.
Today’s plan will set out measures to prevent another lockdown this winter.
While it will focus on the remaining stages of the vaccination programme, it will also warn other restrictions may be needed to prevent cases getting out of control. The plan will focus initially on causing the least disruption to normal life and the economy.
Masks will be top of the list, with some insiders warning that new guidance – or even compulsion – could be introduced within weeks. One Whitehall source said: ‘Masks provide some benefit without having an impact on people’s lives or the economy so they are the obvious place to start.’
Mr Javid appeared to rule out vaccine passports over the weekend. But ministers met again yesterday to discuss their possible introduction for nightclubs and mass events.
Mr Johnson yesterday said he wanted to ‘avoid vaccine passports, if we possibly can’.
But a Whitehall source confirmed they remained a live option which could help businesses stay open.
‘The data shows we do not need to go ahead with vaccine passports in September as originally planned,’ the source said.
‘But we need to hold them in reserve for when they are needed. We still think they might help keep businesses open that might otherwise have to close.’
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, called for the passport plan to be scrapped altogether. ‘They shouldn’t be kept in reserve – they are pointless, damaging and discriminatory,’ he said.
Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College, said vaccinating teenagers with a first shot was the priority. But he said evidence from Israel suggested booster shots for the wider population were ‘very effective at further driving down transmission and infection’. Asked whether a further lockdown could be ruled out, he said ‘I hope so’, but added: ‘You can’t rule out anything completely.’
Asked about this possibility, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said this was a last resort adding: ‘We are in a very different place than where we were previously when other lockdowns were introduced.’
WITH booster shots for the vulnerable and jabs for over-12s expected to begin in days, Boris Johnson has promised a bonfire of Covid regulations.
While a very welcome step on the road back to normality, it is troubling his blueprint for coping with a winter virus surge does not rule out another lockdown.
If our largely vaccinated society cannot stay open because the Government is riskintolerant, the danger is we will oscillate in and out of constraints ad infinitum.
But a more immediate concern is how the Prime Minister measures whether the most draconian curbs need reintroducing. His benchmark is the NHS coming under too much pressure from rising hospitalisations.
This paper is the first to applaud the health service’s superb and dedicated frontline staff. But the organisation itself is so poorly planned and sclerotic that it veers close to collapse nearly every year.
Only the foolhardy would bet against shroud-waving NHS chiefs wailing for shackles on our freedoms as coronavirus and flu cases inevitably tick up in colder months. The consequences, though, would be catastrophic. For one, shutting society would lead to even longer waiting lists.
As sure as night follows day, those same executives would then clamour for even more public spending to be lavished on the rapacious and reform-resistant NHS.
Meanwhile, the economic, social and psychological costs of placing the UK back in the deep freeze would be astronomical.
With sizeable tax rises like the health and social care levy looming, reigniting the recovery could hardly be more urgent.
Yet the stuttering bounceback will worsen if businesses, needing certainty not doubt, refuse to invest or recruit because they fear being steamrollered by a fourth lockdown.
In truth, Mr Johnson doesn’t need a plan to avoid one. Just the confidence and conviction to stare down the doommongers and steer Britain boldly through winter without re-imposing house arrest.