Ministers are cautiously optimistic they can avoid introducing new coronavirus restrictions in England this winter, according to several senior government insiders.
The mood has shifted across Whitehall in recent days as hopes rise that “Plan B” restrictions, including the mandatory wearing of face masks, will not be needed with the latest data showing a week-on-week decline in infections, while the Covid-19 vaccine booster programme is also gathering pace.
Daily cases reported in England since Sunday have fallen: on Tuesday, 32,280 coronavirus cases were recorded, down 12 per cent on the same day last week.
One senior government official said that “there is nothing to currently suggest we need to activate Plan B,” although they cautioned that it was “too early to read a lot into the data”.
A Department for Health insider also underlined it was premature to take too much from the recent fall in infection rates. “The data doesn’t suggest we need to change at the moment.”
They also pointed to “good progress” with the booster programme, adding: “The numbers are heading in the right direction, we’ve delivered 800,000 jabs in 72 hour period and it’s speeding up.”
Downing Street insisted on Tuesday that Plan B would only be introduced if the health service faced “unsustainable” pressure. Coronavirus-related admissions are placing increasing strain on the NHS with 8,693 patients in hospital with Covid-19 on October 25, the highest level since early March.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of NHS Confederation, who called last week for tougher restrictions, said he still thought Plan B should be activated.
“We still think it is better to take relatively easy precautions now than risk things getting worse,” he said. “It’s not just about Covid but about several pressures combined and it is still only late October and has not yet got cold in most places.”
But another well-placed person with knowledge of the situation said that things were “now going in the right direction. I reckon there’s a less than 20 per cent chance we’ll need to activate Plan B.”
Those with knowledge of the plans said a decision on Plan B was unlikely to be taken this week, while England’s schools are on their half term break. Health officials are hopeful that the rate of infection will fall further with children — the main driver of the recent surge in Covid cases — on holiday.
The drop-off in coronavirus cases has been driven in part by a fall in cases among over-80s, indicating the booster programme was suppressing infection rates.
Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, also warned against using high case numbers to “bash the UK” by comparing it with its western European neighbours.
The UK’s high caseload was “partly related to very high testing”, said Pollard, adding that Germany had the highest test positivity rate in Europe. “I’m not trying to deny that there’s not plenty of transmission, because there is, but it’s the comparisons that are problematic,” Pollard told the health select committee.
A leaked dossier to Politico suggested that activating Plan B would cost the UK economy up to £18bn, based on the assumption additional restrictions would be in place until March 2022. But the government said the “presumptions” in the document were untrue, adding: “The data does not currently show that Plan B is necessary — and there is no planned five month timeline.”