January 22, 2022

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Covid-19: Sajid Javid defends Plan B rule changes amid No 10 party row

Covid-19: Sajid Javid defends Plan B rule changes amid No 10 party row
By Joseph Lee & George BowdenBBC NewsNew Covid rules in England will buy time against the Omicron variant amid a "credible risk" of a crisis in the NHS, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said.The new measures include masks in most public places, Covid passes for some venues and work from home guidance.Mr Javid denied the…

By Joseph Lee & George Bowden

BBC News

New Covid rules in England will buy time against the Omicron variant amid a “credible risk” of a crisis in the NHS, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said.

The new measures include masks in most public places, Covid passes for some venues and work from home guidance.

Mr Javid denied the government had lost credibility by breaking rules over parties at Downing Street.

No 10 has said no party took place, despite a video emerging of aides joking about it.

Under pressure following a series of reports about parties at Downing Street when restrictions were in place last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised “unreservedly” for the offence caused by the video and ordered an investigation into whether rules had been broken.

Responding to criticisms from Tory MPs that the new restrictions were a diversion from the allegations against the government, and that the row had undermined trust, Mr Javid told BBC Breakfast: “My job is to do the right thing, led by the evidence.”

He said the idea that the NHS might be “completely overwhelmed”, with people unable to get care following heart attacks or traffic accidents, was “a credible risk and why we acted as we did”.

The health secretary said the evidence was that Omicron was doubling every 2.5 or three days, which could mean a million infections by the end of the month.

But Mr Javid said that mandatory vaccination would be “unethical” and “wouldn’t work”, despite the prime minister saying there should be a “national conversation” about whether the step would be needed to avoid indefinite restrictions on people’s way of life.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme why the party inquiry was needed if ministers were sure it had not taken place, the health secretary said he had “received assurances” but “there’s enough doubt that’s been thrown on this by some of the reports and by looking at the video” that it should be investigated.

“It goes back to the point about having confidence in the rules and that they apply to everyone,” he said.

Media caption,

Watch: Sajid Javid explains his absence on BBC Breakfast the day before

The Metropolitan Police has said it will not investigate the 18 December party joked about by aides on video due to “an absence of evidence”.

The government said its inquiry, led by top civil servant Simon Case, would look into reports of gatherings at Downing Street on 27 November and the Department for Education on 10 December, as well as the 18 December party.

But it means allegations of a lockdown gathering at Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat on 13 November will not form part of the investigation.

Senior Conservative MP William Wragg shouted at the health secretary to resign as he announced Plan B, and had earlier questioned Mr Johnson over the timing of the announcement, suggesting it was a diversion from the Downing Street party allegations.

Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper added: “Why should people at home listening to the prime minster and the secretary of state do things that people working in No 10 Downing Street are not prepared to do?”

While a substantial rebellion is expected when the plans come to a vote in the Commons next week, they are likely to pass with support from Labour.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner told BBC Breakfast she welcomed the measures so “people can have a safer Christmas”, but said the government should have acted sooner and had still not addressed a lack of ventilation in schools and inadequate sick pay for millions.

At a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday, the prime minister described the new rules as “proportionate and responsible” after the emergence of Omicron.

Some 568 confirmed cases of the highly mutated variant have so far been identified in the UK.

  • From Friday, face masks will be required in more public settings – including theatres and cinemas
  • From Monday, people will be asked to work from home where possible
  • From Wednesday, the NHS Covid Pass – proving vaccination status or a negative lateral flow test – will also be required for visitors to nightclubs, indoor unseated venues with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any event with more than 10,000 people

Mr Johnson said daily testing would also replace self-isolation for people who come into contact with an infected person, even if they have Omicron, once it is clear booster jabs work against the variant and enough people have received them.

Under current rules vaccinated people need to self-isolate for 10 days only if they come into contact with a suspected or confirmed Omicron case.

Mr Johnson said Christmas parties and nativity plays should still go ahead – as long as the guidance is followed.

Ministers have repeatedly said there are no plans for another lockdown in England. “It’s not a lockdown, it’s Plan B,” Mr Johnson said on Wednesday.

New curbs and a new revolt

New restrictions are on the way – but so too is a new revolt in Conservative ranks at Westminster.

Privately, and in some cases publicly, MPs questioned the timing of the prime minister’s news conference.

As questions persisted about what went on behind Downing Street’s black door a year ago, it seemed to some of Boris Johnson’s Conservative colleagues that he was trying to divert attention towards what will happen this Christmas, instead of what happened last Christmas inside No 10.

But the PM insisted that the increased transmissibility of Omicron meant he had to act – and he could no longer wait for the data he had previously said was needed on how serious the threat from the new variant was.

Other nations of the UK – which are in charge of their own Covid rules – have already brought in stricter restrictions similar to Plan B.

People in Wales and Scotland have already been told to work from home where possible and Northern Ireland recently strengthened its advice.

Covid passes are also currently required for venues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England, people will be exempt from showing their Covid passport when attending religious worship, weddings and funerals.

Media caption,

Ros Atkins on… the No 10 Christmas party fallout

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged people to follow the rules.

She said: “Even if you feel angry with a politician just now, please remember just how important compliance is for the health and safety of you, your loved ones and the country.”

Speaking alongside Mr Johnson on Wednesday, Sir Patrick Vallance – the government’s chief scientific adviser – also urged people to comply. “It only works if we all do it,” he said.

On Wednesday, another 51,342 confirmed cases of Covid were recorded and a further 161 deaths reported within 28 days of a positive test.

How big a threat is Omicron?

Here are two big questions: How fast can Omicron spread? And how sick will it make you?

Understand those and you understand the threat and the challenge posed by Omicron.

Scientists around the world are now making the first stabs at answering those questions and giving us hints of what’s in store.

Immunity is critical – Omicron has not rewound the clock to the start of the pandemic, but uncertainty clouds everything and definitive answers could be weeks away.

How will the new Covid rules in England affect you or your business? Get in touch by emailing haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk.

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