Sajid Javid has made clear that fresh Covid restrictions could be imposed before Christmas to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, with ministers set to make a decision in days.
Government insiders expect an announcement to be made early next week about whether social mixing will be curtailed before the festive period – potentially including a cap on the number of families that can meet, or even hospitality closures.
“We are assessing the situation; it’s very fast-moving,” the health secretary said on Sunday, when asked about whether new curbs could be implemented before Christmas.
Pressure on the government over Covid curbs has been intensified by the shock resignation on Saturday night of the Brexit minister, David Frost, who made clear that his objection to the plan B measures put in place last week was one of the reasons for his departure.
Any additional restrictions would be likely to spark a furious backlash from Tory MPs, with sceptics adamant there is not enough information yet to make a decision.
But Javid took that argument head on, suggesting ministers may have to act before they have the full picture, given the time lag between infection and hospitalisation.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, there are gaps in the data, but we must work with the data we’ve got, we mustn’t let perfection be the enemy of the good,” he said.
One cabinet minister suggested Javid and the government’s scientific advisers appeared to be preparing the ground for an announcement in the coming days, saying, “I think we are all being warmed up for it”.
The health secretary’s blunt intervention came after government advisers warned that without tougher measures, hospitalisations across England could be set to peak at between 3,000 and 10,000 a day, and deaths at between 600 and 6,000 a day.
Minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Emergencies (Sage), held last Thursday, showed the experts urging the government to implement “more stringent measures … very soon”.
They suggested a return to step one or two of the roadmap out of lockdown earlier this year. Even at step two, household mixing was only allowed outdoors, with a maximum of six people or two households. Pubs were only allowed to serve customers outside.
“The timing of such measures is crucial. Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings,” the scientists warned.
Pressed about Sage’s advice, Javid said: “It’s a very sobering analysis, we take it very seriously.” He said he and his colleagues would be assessing the advice, but also had to take into account the wider effect of potential measures, including their economic effects.
Scientific advisers see doing nothing as a major gamble: a lot would have to go right for the NHS to weather the storm, such as the disease being milder, and boosters holding up well.
In nearly all of the modelling considered by Sage on 8 December, it will take an intervention as effective as January’s lockdown to keep hospitalisations below previous peaks.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Sage modelling subgroup and professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the government had to juggle protecting the NHS, saving Christmas and avoiding a lockdown, while heading off such a huge absentee rate due to illness and self-isolation that it disrupted essential services.
“The critical point is that decisions need to be made very urgently indeed – that is the implication of two-day doubling time – without having perfect information, most importantly on the severity of Omicron and the effectiveness of boosters against it,” he said.
“My view is that the maxim ‘early intervention can be less drastic intervention’ still holds, but the door is closing very fast. We don’t want to reach the point where whatever we do is damage limitation.”
A No 10 source played down the chances of an imminent announcement, saying: “You never can rule anything out, but plan B was only implemented a week ago, and we’re getting huge numbers coming forward for their boosters.”
Javid hailed the fact that a record 906,656 booster jabs were delivered in England alone on Saturday.
In an indication of the response any new measures would be likely to meet with from MPs, the chair of the backbench Covid recovery group, Mark Harper, said “lockdowns, of any kind, should not become the default policy choice”, adding that “holding out is often the right decision and often the hardest”.
Echoing the message of England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, earlier this week, the health secretary also called on the public to be careful about socialising in the run-up to Christmas. “It’s time to be more cautious. We know this thing is spreading rapidly,” he said.
It is understood ministers are monitoring hospitalisations in London particularly closely. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, declared a major incident in the capital on Saturday amid concerns about mass absences in the NHS and other public services, and rocketing cases.
Khan said more curbs were inevitable. “If we don’t bring in new restrictions sooner rather than later, you’re going to see even more positive cases, and potentially public services like the NHS on the verge of collapse, if not collapsing,” he told the BBC.
But he suggested the right moment to move might be after Christmas, given the importance for people’s mental health of meeting up with their families.
Some cabinet ministers are known to be very wary of more restrictions, with Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak among those counselling caution. An ally of Sunak said he was “working through the data” before making a final decision.
On Sunday, the UK government announced it was doubling the amount of additional funding available for the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to tackle Covid from £430m to £860m. Sunak confirmed the increased funding after discussions with the devolved administrations.
A spokesperson for Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said she was seeking urgent clarity as it appeared the money was not additional funding, but “simply a form of ‘advance’ on funding that would have come to Scotland anyway”.
Sunak is understood to be awaiting a final decision on what curbs will be imposed, before announcing any financial support package for industries already hit by mass cancellations.
The chancellor flew back early from a work trip to California last Friday amid intense pressure from businesses in the hospitality and culture sectors.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said the public needed to hear “practical steps” from the government, claiming Boris Johnson had been “asleep at the wheel”.
“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’s unable to provide the leadership this country needs,” he said.