Sajid Javid was berated by Tories today as he defended the ‘proportionate’ Plan B curbs ahead of a showdown vote in the Commons.
The Health Secretary insisted action is needed to avoid ‘unsustainable’ pressure on the NHS, stressing that scientists believe infections with the Omicron strain are doubling every two or three days.
But Conservative MPs queued up to grill him, demanding to know why the government is not heeding evidence from South Africa that the disease might be milder and former chief whip Mark Harper warning parliament must be recalled over Christmas if ministers want to impose tougher rules.
In one of the punchiest interventions, backbencher Bob Seely complained that some modelling of the virus’s trajectory had been ‘hysterical, substantially inflated, consistently overconfident, lurid and severely flawed’.
The bruising exchanges came with Boris Johnson desperately ringing round his own troops in a bid to quell a 70-strong revolt.
The PM has been personally contacting wavering MPs after scores vowed to defy the government whip when new regulations rubber-stamping Covid passes for nightclubs and major events, mandatory vaccination for health staff, and mask at put to a vote tonight.
He will also make a last-ditch effort to talk round rebels – who primarily object to Covid passes and mandatory vaccination for health staff – by addressing a meeting of the powerful Tory 1922 committee at 5.30pm.
But the scale of the rebellion means the embattled PM will almost certainly have to rely on Labour to get the measures through – despite in theory having an 80-strong Commons majority. Several ministerial aides have been threatening to quit but appear to have been won over, with Danny Kruger saying he had received ‘assurances’ there will never be compulsory vaccination.
Tories are also gearing up for an even bigger battle amid claims ministers are preparing to go further by shutting hospitality within weeks if the Omicron strain continues to run rampant.
In a grim signal to the country, Mr Johnson held Cabinet ‘virtually’ this morning and told ministers that a ‘huge spike’ of infections is coming.
On another day of Covid chaos:
- Nicola Sturgeon has heaped more pressure on Mr Johnson later by unveiling a new wave of Covid restrictions for Scotland;
- Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned that the country must ‘learn to live with’ coronavirus in evidence of friction within Cabinet;
- The quarantine hotel system has been effectively scrapped with Sajid Javid confirming all countries are being removed from it;
- There have been fresh setbacks in the government’s booster jab drive with huge queues and booking issues, while test kit shortages have also been reported;
- Three members of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet have tested positive as coronavirus surges across the country.
Former chief whip Mark Harper (left) warned Sajid Javid (right) that parliament must be recalled over Christmas if ministers want to impose tougher rules
Boris Johnson is facing a 70-strong Tory revolt over his ‘Nazi-style’ in crunch votes today as furious MPs branded them a ‘softening up exercise’ for harsher lockdown
Stephen McPartland said on Twitter today that he will be voting against the Plan B curbs
Members of the public queue to receive a dose of a Covid-19 jab at a vaccination centre in south Manchester today
There were long queues at another vaccination centre on Solihull High Street in the West Midlands today
NHS England was put on the highest level of alert for the first time since March. Level four means health bosses believe there is a real threat that an expected influx of Covid patients could start to force the closure of other vital services
Sturgeon heaps pressure on PM by unveiling new wave of Covid curbs
Nicola Sturgeon re-introduced social distancing and asked Scots to cut down on socialising in the run up to Christmas today.
Pubs, restaurants and shops will have to take measures to avoid crowding and queues, the First Minister told Holyrood.
Additionally she asked Scots to limit indoor mixing to just three households. While the advice will not be enforceable in law, Ms Sturgeon announced that allowing staff to work from home where possible will again become a legal duty on employers.
Ms Sturgeon confirmed that she was not seeking to put restrictions on festive events at Christmas itself.
‘Turning to Christmas Day specifically, or Christmas Eve or Boxing Day or whenever you have your main family celebration, we are not asking you to cancel or change your plans, and we are not proposing limits on the size of household gatherings,’ she said.
‘My key request today is this: before and immediately after Christmas, please minimise your social mixing with other households as much as you can.
‘However, if you do plan on socialising, either at home or in indoor public places, we are asking that you limit the number of households represented in your group to a maximum of three. And make sure you test before you go.’
She also lashed out at Boris Johnson, complaining that it was ‘not acceptable’ that there was no additional funding yet available from the UK Government to support businesses affected by the measures she is introducing.
Whitehall officials have drawn up proposals to limit the number of people allowed in pubs and restaurants, according to The Sun. There are also contingency plans to bring back furlough and support for businesses if tougher restrictions are needed.
Covid passes are the main focus of Tory rebels in Westminster today, with anger that they are ‘illogical’ and an infringement of civil liberties. Mr Javid said yesterday that in future booster jabs will be needed to be ‘fully vaccinated’ for the purposes of the passes.
There is also broad opposition to mandatory vaccination for NHS and care staff, and unhappiness at the economic impact of a return of the working from home guidance on town and city centre businesses at a crucial time of the year if people again stay away from their offices.
The Plan B measures are not in danger of failing because Sir Keir Starmer has ordered Labour MPs to support them.
But the Commons mutiny could wipe out Mr Johnson’s majority and eclipse his biggest revolt yet, when 54 Tories voted against the tier system last December. Some rebels believe it could be bigger than the 80-strong revolt that forced David Cameron to promise the EU referendum.
Mr Javid told MPs: ‘Omicron is a grave threat. We acted early to slow its spread, strengthening our testing regime and placing 11 countries on the travel red list.
‘But despite those swift steps the data over the past few days has shown more cause concern. I’d like to reinforce with the House today, to all honourable members why Omicron represents such a risk to the progress that we’ve all made so far together.’
Several Tories intervened to ask for guarantees of another vote if the government wants to go further.
Mr Harper said: ‘Is he able now at the despatch box to commit that if the Government were to take further measures to deal with Omicron during the recess, that the Government would recall the House of Commons so that we’re able to have all of the evidence and participate in taking those decisions on behalf of the constituents we represent?’
Mr Javid replied: ‘I am not able to give that commitment alone, it wouldn’t be a decision for me and my department alone, but it is something that I know the Government would consider together seriously.’
Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, asked: ‘When will we know whether Omicron gives severe or mild disease? Therefore, if it is mild, how quickly will the decision be made that this would be of an advantage to get rid of Delta and get a herd immunity which doesn’t create strong disease?’
Fellow Tory Andrew Bridgen highlighted comments from the head of the South African Medical Association suggesting Omicron is a ‘mild form of Covid-19’ and will have ‘huge benefits for herd immunity and protection’.
But Mr Javid said: ‘Even if the hospital stay (of Omicron patients) is half of what it (other Covid variants) is at the moment, at the rate that this thing is growing, and if it continues to grow at that rate, that benefit could be cancelled out in two days.’
Isle of Wight MP Mr Seely gave an excoriating assessment of the quality of information being issued by the government.
‘Will he accept that many academics have doubted the previous forecasts, describing them as hysterical, substantially inflated, consistently overconfident, lurid and severely flawed?’ he said.
‘We have had a problem with inaccurate forecasts. Will he accept that point?’
Mr Javid said: ‘Yes, yes I absolutely accept that point. And with previous variants of Covid we have seen forecasts and estimates whether it’s from academics or think tanks and others that have been completely off the mark.’
However, he went on: ‘Just because forecasts in the past… have been wrong it doesn’t mean to say every estimate or forecast is always wrong.’
In an excoriating outburst, former minister Desmond Swayne accused Mr Johnson of creating a ‘ministry of fear’.
He said between ‘200 and 350 people will die of flu’ on a ‘typical winter’s day’, asking: ‘Do we hide behind our mask? Do we lurk at home working from home? Do we demand that people provide their bona fides before going to a venue? Do we require people to be vaccinated as a condition of keeping their jobs?’
He asked MPs if they took seriously some of the ‘extraordinary extrapolations’ given to them, noting: ‘The fact that these are things that might take place and we have to balance that against the known cost and damage to enterprise, economy and society, and in the end it comes down to a matter of opinion, a matter of our prejudices.’
He asked which ‘Stalinist minds’ had thought up the name behind the UK Health Protection Agency, adding: ‘Get them out there twisting the fear button and by and large you will get the reaction you want – people will crave more enforcement and more fearsome measures to protect them from this great danger that is out there.’
Sir Desmond said: ‘The Government, having administered this ministry of fear, is absolutely complicit with its officials and organisations that have designed it and delivered it.
‘They have abandoned in doing that any principle of social democracy, of liberal democracy, absolutely beyond anything we’ve endured in recent living memory in the history of this pandemic.
‘And as a consequence, having abandoned what might have been their ideology, they are rudderless and as a consequence of that so much more at risk of the opinions and predictions of the advisers to which they are in hock.’
The PM’s spokesman said the decision to hold Cabinet remotely had been taken ‘in light of the increasing number of cases and our advice to work from home when possible’.
Pressed on why Cabinet was virtual but MPs would have to vote in person tonight, the spokesman said: ‘I think my understanding is the Speaker, working with the Leader, on measures in place for voting, I don’t have the full detail but I believe they might be expanding the time allowed for votes.’
Asked whether people should still be going ahead with Christmas parties, the spokesman said: ‘Our position on that hasn’t changed.
‘As I have said the Prime Minister believes we have a proportionate and balanced approach and given what we know about this variant and the protective measures we already have in place we do not want to close hospitality.
‘That is not a proposal in Plan B. But we will continue to encourage everyone going to a party or spending any time in an enclosed space with people they don’t know to get tested beforehand to make use of the significant capability we have and obviously to continue to take heed of things like good ventilation, good respiratory hygiene.’
The Tory rebellion shows little sign of running out of steam, with critics seizing on confusion after Mr Javid suggested there were 200,000 cases of Omicron yesterday – which would imply it is spreading even faster than previously thought.
Tory rebel ringleader Steve Baker told MailOnline: ‘Public confidence relies on ministers obviously gripping facts. If they have not gripped the facts how can they have asked the right questions? This certainly does nothing to persuade me I am making a mistake in voting No today.’
Mr Kruger said he would support the Government after talks with Mr Johnson on Tuesday morning and having spoken to Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who is understood to have spoken to at least one other ministerial aide, the night before.
The MP warned he is ‘profoundly concerned’ about ‘mass surveillance’, and ‘the segregation or punishment of people who decline medical interventions offered by the state’.
‘I don’t believe that is where anyone in Government wants to go. I spoke to the Health Secretary last night and the Prime Minister this morning,’ he wrote on his website.
Mr Kruger said both ‘stressed that these deliberately limited measures are intended to prevent another mandatory lockdown’, there will ‘never be compulsory vaccination for any citizen’ nor will there be health passes not accepting negative lateral flow tests.
‘On this basis – thus far and no further – I am happy to support the measures this evening,’ he concluded.
Downing Street said the PM told the virtual Cabinet there is ‘a huge spike of Omicron was coming and the measures we aim to introduce as part of Plan B were balanced and proportionate, helping to reduce transmission while we ramp up the booster programme’.
In apparent evidence of tensions, Mr Rees-Mogg used his ConservativeHome podcast to warn: ‘You have to learn to live with Covid in the end. We cannot switch the economy off and on every few months.’
Asked whether that was what the Government was doing, the PM;s spokesman said: ‘Certainly it is not our intention to do so.’
One Cabinet source described the Whitty briefing as ‘grim’, saying he gave the impression that hospitals would be ‘in trouble’ if the rate of infection did not ease – although No10 is adamant he did not warn that any will be forced to close by a specific date.
Lockdown-sceptic ministers are understood to be growing increasingly concerned about the prospect of even tougher rules, with allies of Jacob Rees-Mogg telling MailOnline he was asking ‘how much further can we go?’
There were also ‘raised eyebrows’ from some ministers about Sajid Javid’s claim on 200,000 Omicron infections a day. ‘Now it seems to be even higher,’ said another hawkish Cabinet source wryly. ‘What can you do with that.’
Former minister Tobias Ellwood said Covid passes were ‘illogical’. He said there were ‘practical implications’ but the main issue was people could go into venues with ‘proof of having two jabs, which may have been completed six months ago, so even with a new mutation you could actually be carrying Covid’.
‘Leadership is about taking people to where perhaps they didn’t realise they needed to go, but they must understand the plan, and this is illogical at the moment,’ he said.
‘If you can turn up with just a piece of paper, that documentation you’ve received that says you’ve had two jabs completed six months ago, that will not prevent Covid from entering a large venue.’
Fellow Conservative Stephen McPartland said he would be voting against the curbs. ‘We know Plan B measures don’t make any sense & are just softening us us up for more restrictions in next few weeks,’ he tweeted.
‘The impact on mental health, cancelled surgeries & diagnostics is intolerable for families.’
Dominic Raab risked inflaming the tensions in interviews this morning as he dismissed ‘overstated’ criticism about the measures to combat the Omicron strain. Mr Raab, whose Jewish father fled Czechoslovakia in 1938, dismissed backbencher Marcus Fysh’s comparison between Covid passes and the oppressive Hitler regime as ‘crass’ and ‘inappropriate’.
He told Sky News: ‘Even if you haven’t had the double jab or, in due course, the booster, you can still rely on the lateral flow test, which is why I think some of these concerns about this are overstated.’
Mr Raab went on: ‘If you want to go into a crowded venue, I think most people would think that voluntarily as a matter of their own safety, but also those around them, that that is a reasonable thing to do.
‘I don’t think this is a big step or a slippery slope, but I do understand the concerns and that’s why we should have a proper debate.’
Mr Raab hit out at the comparison of coronavirus health passes to Nazi atrocities. ‘I don’t like that kind of language and I don’t think it’s appropriate,’ he said. ‘I don’t think comparing what we are trying to achieve to an authoritarian or Nazi regime is quite right. I think a lot of people find that crass.’
The deputy PM did not rule out further measures being considered for Christmas or new year, saying: ‘These issues are always discussed but we have got Plan B, that’s what we think is required over the Christmas period.’
Pressed if Christmas will be safe, Mr Raab replied: ‘Yes, I think it is. I want to give that reassurance. I think people can look forward to spending Christmas with loved ones in a way that we couldn’t last year.’
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has admitted being ‘concerned about the mixed and heavy messaging coming from the government’, while Mark Harper, chair of the Covid Recovery Group, said it was ‘not acceptable to keep governing this country by decree’.
One backbencher told The Guardian: ‘These restrictions are the gateway drug to more serious restrictions down the line. I think we’ll be on Plan X, Y or Z by Christmas.’
Another said ‘scare stories’ about further curbs beyond Plan B had ‘actually had the opposite effect’ and emboldened the rebels.
Tory whips are said to have had ‘the thumbscrews out’ to curb the revolt, telling junior members of the Government that they will have to quit if they vote against Covid vaccine passports.
Ministers and whips have also reportedly been sharing internal polling commissioned by the Cabinet Office which showed that the public favours ‘Plan B’ restrictions and a cautious approach to the so-called ‘Omicron’ variant.
The First Minister announced this afternoon further measures required in response to the growing outbreak of the Omicron variant.
Mr Johnson yesterday repeatedly declined to rule out further restrictions ahead of Christmas but stressed the urgency of people getting boosters. He also said MPs thinking of rebelling against Plan B measures needed to recognise there was ‘no room for complacency’ in dealing with Omicron.
In a massively ambitious move, Mr Johnson brought forward the deadline to offer all over-18s a third jab by New Year’s Day as he warned the country: ‘There is a tidal wave of Omicron coming.’
But concerns about whether the Government could even hit the goal were raised almost immediately after Mr Johnson’s 8pm televised announcement. Even at the height of the NHS’s vaccine drive in March, the health service never managed more than 850,000 jabs a day.
In England a booster is available to everyone aged 18 or over from this week as long as the second dose was at least three months ago. Over-30s can already book a booster online and, from Wednesday, this will be extended to over-18s.
The UK recorded its first death involving Omicron, and 10 people are in hospital with the variant. Most of these 10 have received two vaccines and range in age from 18 to 85, though there are no details on whether they have underlying conditions.
Mr Javid told MPs there are now 4,713 confirmed cases of Omicron in the UK, adding that the UK Health Security Agency estimates that the current number of ‘daily infections are around 200,000’.
He added: ‘While Omicron represents over 20 per cent of cases in England, we’ve already seen it rise to over 44 per cent in London and we expect it to become the dominant Covid 19 variant in the capital in the next 48 hours.’
Overall, there were a further 54,661 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK as of Monday morning, the Government said.
The NHS will need to exceed 840,000 booster jabs per day in a bid to fight Omicron, which is causing around 200,000 new infections per day, the Health Secretary said.
Mr Javid told MPs that every adult across England could expect to be offered a ‘chance to get boosted by the end of this month’ though he suggested not everyone would get a dose in December.
He said: ‘It is asking a huge amount of our colleagues in the NHS. And it’s our joint view that we can try to offer adults a chance to get boosted by the end of this month. And that does not mean every single person necessarily can get that booster, it requires them to come forward and to take up this offer as well, as well as everything going right in this huge expansion plan.’
It follows confusion over whether the Government has promised that people can all have a jab in their arm by the December 31 deadline, or whether they will just have an offer of a future vaccine.
Mr Javid told the Commons: ‘Until now the highest number of jabs that we’ve delivered in a single day in the UK was over 840,000. We’ll not only need to match that but we will need to beat that every day. But we can and we’ve got a plan to try and do it.
‘We’re opening more vaccination sites including pop-up and mobile sites that’ll be working seven days a week.
‘We are training thousands more volunteer vaccinators, we’re asking GPs and pharmacies to do more and we’re drafting in 42 military planning teams across every region of our country.’
Mr Javid said he acknowledge that ‘our national mission comes with some difficult trade-offs’, meaning some non-urgent appointments and surgery in the NHS may be cancelled.
He added: ‘These are steps that no Health Secretary would wish to take unless they were absolutely necessary, but I am convinced that if we don’t prioritise the booster now the health consequences will be far more grave in the months that lie ahead.’
Mr Javid also urged people to have boosters as a way of protecting children.
Robert Halfon, Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee, asked Mr Javid to ‘make sure schools are kept open in January’.
Mr Javid said: ‘One of the reasons to take the measures we’ve said, especially around expanding the booster programme, is to make sure we can prioritise our children.’
Anti-vaxx protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday
Downing Street has indicated schools will be kept open unless there is an ‘absolute public health emergency’ and warned local authorities against deciding to close early for Christmas as a precautionary measure.
‘There are certainly no plans to put in any restriction on schooling, we know how vital education has been and how detrimental the pandemic has been towards children and young people who, in many cases, have borne the brunt of this,’ the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.