UK ministers on Thursday continued to resist pressure to impose new Covid restrictions in England, after a doctors’ union claimed the government was being “wilfully negligent” in refusing to move to its Plan B.
Edward Argar, health minister, said he did not believe the NHS in England was facing “unsustainable pressure”, in spite of rising hospitalisations and new Covid cases running at over 40,000 a day.
But NHS bosses have said Plan B — including compulsory mask-wearing in some settings, “work from home” advice and Covid passports for entrance to clubs and mass events — should be introduced immediately.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the British Medical Association chair, said doctors “can categorically say that time is now” and that case levels in England were “unheard of in similar European nations”.
Nagpaul said the government had “taken its foot off the brake, giving the impression that the pandemic is behind us and that life has returned to normal”.
He said: “It is wilfully negligent of the Westminster government not to be taking any further action to reduce the spread of infection.” Nagpaul added the country had the same number of weekly Covid deaths now as in March, when the country was in lockdown.
Argar told the BBC that the vaccine rollout had helped to control hospitalisations, but accepted that Plan B might have to be activated if the NHS came under greater pressure from Covid and other winter infections.
“We know how those numbers can rise swiftly, which is why we’re looking at that day by day, hour by hour. But at the moment we do have the ability to manage,” he said.
Argar refused to say whether government advisers — including Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser — were urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to activate new restrictions. Vallance last month urged the government to “go hard and go early” if cases started to surge.
Meanwhile Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents healthcare organisations, said on Wednesday: “The message from health leaders is clear — it is better to act now, rather than regret it later.”
Argar denied that the government was holding back on activating Plan B because Conservative MPs opposed new restrictions.
Very few Tory MPs wore masks in a packed House of Commons on Wednesday. On the same day Sajid Javid, health secretary, urged the public to wear masks in crowded situations and to hold more meetings outdoors.
Johnson this month boasted that his Conservative party conference in Manchester was “a traditional Tory cheek by jowler”; very few face coverings were in evidence.
“For months we have had one of the most open economies and societies,” he said in his keynote speech. “On July 19 we decided to open every single
theatre and every concert hall and nightclub in England.”
He joked that Michael Gove, levelling up minister, had been dispatched to “our sweatiest boîtes de nuit to show that anyone could dance perfectly safely”.
This week, with case numbers rising sharply, Javid has been forced to convey a very different message, accepting that MPs should “set an example” when it came to wearing face masks in some indoor settings.
Javid’s Covid press briefing on Wednesday was the first in Downing Street on the subject for more than five weeks. Ministers are now urging people to take up booster jabs, with Javid warning that recent “freedoms” were at risk unless the public took precautions.