Early evening summary
- Government scientific advisers have urged ministers to bring in a “basket of measures” soon or risk daily hospitalisations soaring to between 2,000 and 7,000 next month as the new school term and returning office workers threaten to drive up cases of Covid.
- Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has said the government may need to reintroduce mandatory face masks and advise the public to work from home, as he set out the government’s plans for coping with Covid in England through the autumn and winter.
- Covid boosters will be offered to all over-50s and those at greatest risk of the disease as part of the “toolbox” of measures for controlling coronavirus over the autumn and winter following guidance from the government’s vaccine advisers.
- MPs have voted to give the health and social care levy bill a second reading. Six Conservative MPs voted against the bill – John Baron, Sir Christopher Chope, Philip Davies, Dehenna Davison, Ben Everitt and Esther McVey – but another 41 Tories did not vote in the division. Some of those will have been authorised absences, but some were abstentions. MPs are now debating amendments to the bill, which is due to clear the Commons tonight.
- Brexit controls on food and animal products that were due to come into effect in January are being postponed until July 2022 because of the potential impact on businesses, the British government has announced.
That’s all from me for tonight. But our Covid coverage continues on our global live blog. It’s here.
And on the subject of hospital admissions, the latest figures on today’s UK Covid dashboard shows them up 5% week on week.
Significant decrease in home working likely to lead to ‘rapid increase in hospital admissions’, say Sage advisers
Here are links to two of the key Sage documents released today.
Minutes of the Sage meeting from last Thursday (pdf) – where Sage warns of the UK entering “a period of uncertainty”.
Minutes of a SPI-M meeting from last Wednesday (pdf) – where SPI-M suggested a “relatively light set of measures” should be introduced now, and said a significant reduction in homeworking could lead to a “rapid increase in hospital admissions”. (SPI-M is a subcommittee of Sage.) It said:
There is a clear consensus that continued high levels of home working has played a very important role in preventing sustained epidemic growth in recent months. It is highly likely that a significant decrease in home working in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions.
If enacted early enough, a relatively light set of measures could be sufficient to curb sustained growth. During a period of sustained epidemic growth, however, the more stringent the measures introduced, the shorter the duration needed for the measures to be in place to reduce to a given prevalence …
As well as encouraging home working, more light-touch measures could include clear messaging that recommends people acting cautiously, more widespread testing, a return to requiring all contacts of cases to isolate, and more mask-wearing.
Given a high proportion of susceptible people are in younger age groups, measures targeted towards them are likely to have a disproportionately large effect on prevalence.
The Irish government has said the UK’s decision to delay the introduction of some post-Brexit border checks on EU imports will be good for Irish businesses. Leo Varadkar, the Irish deputy prime minister, said:
They’ve decided to delay those checks, I think at least until the end of the year, and I think that’s going be very welcome for Irish business.
There was a lot of concern, particularly in the food sector, but more broadly, that Britain imposing those checks on imports going to Britain from Ireland would create further trade disruption and could have a negative impact on business and jobs.
As the FT’s Matthew Garrahan points out, others in the EU seem happy about the decision too.
Welsh Labour government and Plaid Cymru say they are discussing cooperation deal
There have been discussions between the Welsh government and Plaid Cymru about an “ambitious co-operation agreement”, PA Media reports. A statement from the Labour Welsh government and Plaid said the two groups were looking at where they can work together. After May’s elections, Welsh Labour holds 30 of the 60 seats in the Senedd and relies on support from other parties to pass legislation.
In a joint statement, the Welsh government and Plaid Cymru said said:
As Wales prepares for a stronger future beyond the coronavirus pandemic; responds to the climate emergency, the ongoing consequences of leaving the EU, and threats to devolution; it is more important than ever that political parties work together wherever they have common interests on behalf of people in Wales.
Constructive initial discussions have taken place between the Welsh Labour government and Plaid Cymru exploring ways of building a more equal, just and democratic nation for all.
These discussions are continuing to explore an ambitious co-operation agreement to be based around a number of defined policy priorities and the governance arrangements on which the Welsh Labour government and Plaid Cymru can work together to deliver for Wales.
The new Chinese ambassador to the UK has been barred from parliament by the Speakers in the Commons and Lords after the imposition of sanctions on British MPs by Beijing, my colleague Patrick Wintour reports.
Nicki Minaj, who has 22.6m Twitter followers, has responded to Sir Chris Whitty (see 4.12pm), who is also a celebrity of sorts now, but who is not quite in her league. His Twitter feed has 355,500 followers.
UPDATE: She has a message for the PM too.
Bring in measures soon or risk 7,000 daily hospitalisations, Sage warns
Government scientific advisers have urged ministers to bring in a “basket of measures” soon or risk daily hospitalisations soaring to between 2,000 and 7,000 next month as the new school term and returning office workers threaten to drive up cases of Covid, my colleagues Ian Sample and Heather Stewart report.
• The headline on this post and the associated link was amended on 15 September 2021 as it incorrectly referred to “daily Covid cases” rather than hospitalisations.
According to the House of Commons authorities, MPs are “strongly advised” to wear masks when they are in the chamber. But most Conservative MPs choose not to. Here is a picture of the Tory benches taken by the official Commons photographer today.
And here is Sajid Javid addressing the opposition benches during his statement. Opposition MPs have been much more willing to wear masks in the chamber, and at the point this picture was taken fewer of them were present.
Vallance stresses it’s important to ‘go early’ if new Covid restrictions needed
Here are the main points from Boris Johnson’s press conference. As has often been the case at these events, the most interesting answers have probably been those from the scientists – although they could probably do with some decoding; one suspects that if Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance were running the country, the autumn and winter Covid plan would be a little more robust.
- Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, stressed that it was important for the government to “go early” in terms of introducing new restrictions if cases continue to rise. He said:
If you look at, across the channel, countries where you’ve got similar levels of immunity and some higher degrees of restriction, what you can see is that the cases are going down.
So we’re at that pivot point where things are flattish at the moment. If they go up quickly, then, as I said, you’ve got to go early in terms of getting on top of it. You can’t wait until it’s late because you have to do more.
At no point did Vallance say that what the government was doing was not enough, but he gave the impression that if the government had adopted tougher measures today, he would not have been upset about it. This is also one of the messages from the Sage minutes released earlier. (See 1.24pm.) Sage, which is co-chaired by Vallance, said:
Sage reiterated the importance of acting early to slow a growing epidemic. Early, “low-cost” interventions may forestall need for more disruptive measures and avoid an unacceptable level of hospitalisations.
Sage noted that European comparators with similar levels of vaccination have maintained more interventions (masks, vaccine certification, work from home) than the UK and are seeing their epidemics decline.
- Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, warned about the threat posed by winter. He said that respiratory viruses were “hugely advantaged” by conditions during winter and that last winter the Delta variant was not a problem.
- Johnson said the possible plan B measures set out by the government today would not necessarily be introduced all at once. He said plan B had “a number of different shots in the locker”. He went on:
You wouldn’t necessarily play them all at once, far from it, you would want to do things in a graduated way.
We’re now in a situation when because so many of the population have some degree of immunity, smaller changes in the way we’re asking people to behave can have a bigger impact.
- He said the government would soon announce plans to make “the burdens of testing less onerous for those who are coming back into the country”. Earlier Sajid Javid, the health secretary, implied that PCR tests could soon be replaced with lateral flow tests for people entering the UK. (See 2.47pm.)
- Vallance said there was waning of immunity from the vaccines, but that they continue to provide good protection. He said:
The waning of immunity is clear. It’s greater for infection than it is for the waning against hospitalisations and deaths, so they’re holding up very well. This is some waning. And that waning is most evident in the people who are most at risk.
- Whitty suggested an increase in hospitalisations might be one of the most important factors in determining whether the government went to plan B. He said:
A gradual drift up [in hospitalisations] is one thing, if you suddenly saw a very rapid increase, then you have to consider taking earlier action. No one is claiming there was a good number – we would all like the numbers to be as low as possible – but in terms of what might trigger change, those are the things which I think are the most likely.
- Johnson said vaccine passports were “an important part of our repertoire”. He said they would have been a “lifesaver” last year because they could have allowed nightclubs to stay open.
- Whitty said the risk of going to hospital with Covid was “very substantially smaller” for vaccinated people than it was for vaccinated people. He explained:
If you just do a very crude look at the numbers, someone who is in their 30s and unvaccinated is running about the same risk as someone in their 70s who is vaccinated. It’s that level of difference.
Q: The Night Time Industries Association says the government’s handling of the vaccine passport issue has been catastrophic. What is your response?
Johnson says he wants to keep nightclubs, and the night-time economy, open. This year they can keep it open, he says. But they have to be sensible. Plenty of venues have already been using Covid-status certificates, he says.
Q: What does the data show about the impact of a booster dose of vaccine?
Vallance says booster vaccines give a very big increase in antibody response. That should have a very big knock-on effect in terms of protection, he says.
And that’s it. The press conference is over.
I will post a summary soon.
Q: What is your response to Nicki Minaj tweets claiming vaccines are dangerous?
Whitty says he is worried that publicising remarks like this is counter-productive.
Johnson makes a joke about another Nikki.
There was also a question inviting Johnson to rule out a reshuffle, but Johnson ignores this.
Q: Will it be a new variant that changes the game here?
Whitty says variants are a concern. They happen all the time. The Delta variant is a very bad variant, he says.
We have not had a winter with the Delta one, so it is possible that the combination of Delta plus winter conditions could persuade the government to trigger plan B.
We are not at that point now, he says.
Q: Is it enough to tell people to consider wearing masks in crowded places?
Whitty says his previous suggestion to people remains his view: if you are in a crowded space, particularly indoors, wearing masks will protect people. And there will be places where wearing one will make other people more comfortable.
Q: Were you really planning to bring in vaccine passports in July when you announced the plan? Or was it just a ruse to increase vaccine uptake?
Johnson says he will defend them in principle. But at present he does not think they are necessary, he says.
Q: Deaths are five times what they were a year ago, and hospitalisations four times. Why not take some measure now?
Johnson says the government is continuing to advise people to be sensible and responsible.
Whitty says people are already taking measures to reduce the risk. They are meeting fewer people, and wearing masks in crowded spaces.
Q: How do you respond to the argument in the Lancet paper saying booster vaccines are unnecessary now, and that it would be better to send vaccines to developing countries?
Whitty says everyone wants to get vaccines to low-income countries. That is not contentious.
But is there some waning immunity that suggest a booster vaccine would be a good idea, Whitty asks. There is some evidence for this, he says. He says the UK is taking a middle approach. The JCVI has recommended boosters for some people, but not for everyone.
The case for the booster programme is science-based.
He says mRNA vaccines are being used. They have a short shelf-life, he says, meaning they would not be most appropriate for developing countries.
Vallance says there has been some waning of vaccine effectiveness, and this has been in the people most at risk. He says the JCVI recommendations are very sensible.