Shameless Michael Gove today tried to claim he was not wrong about lockdown despite mounting an enormous U-turn.
Boris Johnson announced a national four-week shutdown after weeks of refusing calls to bring one in.
His own advisors SAGE had recommended a two- to three-week “circuit-break” as one of five options on September 21.
He refused, and when Keir Starmer asked for a circuit-break on October 13 he was dismissed as a “shameless opportunist”.
Since then, government advisors have told the PM it is now too late to bring in a two-week lockdown and it would have to be longer to have an impact.
Yet Mr Gove, Cabinet Office minister and ally of the PM, today refused to accept he got it wrong and Sir Keir got it right.
“No, I don’t accept that,” he told the BBC.
“It’s impossible to know definitively until the end of this pandemic which were the mistakes and which were the mis-steps.”
Mr Gove also claimed a circuit-breaker “wasn’t necessary” on October 18, when he was asked if it would happen and replied: “No.”
That is despite SAGE’s plea already being made public days before that point.
Mr Gove told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “During the course of the whole of that interview I outlined we would be willing to take whatever steps were necessary.
“But it wasn’t necessary at that point. At that point the advice we were receiving was that a regional approach could succeed in reducing the spread of infection from those areas where the infection rate was high, to those areas where the infection rate was still relatively speaking lower.
“But unfortunately over the course of the last two weeks the virus has been spreading faster than predicted, and in a way that requires what the Prime Minister has described as the nuclear option.”
The Prime Minister rejected calls from Labour and SAGE last month for a short, sharp shutdown.
But after local restrictions failed to sufficiently reduce infections, he was forced to implement the second lockdown.
Mr Johnson said he was forced to act to avert bleak Sage predictions of 85,000 deaths this winter.
The Cabinet was shown stark data saying all surge bed capacity in the NHS, including cancelling operations and using the Nightingale hospitals, would be overwhelmed in the first week of December.
“No responsible PM can ignore the message of those figures. We’ve got to be humble in the face of nature,” he said.
But Sir Keir told the BBC today: “I’m so frustrated at the incompetence of the Government.
“If what they announced yesterday had been announced when I said it should have been – two or three weeks ago – we could have had the lockdown and schools shut because of the natural break of half term.
“People will be waking up this morning and thinking ‘how on earth did it get to this?’
“The Government was too slow in the first phase of the pandemic and now it’s being too slow again and there’s a cost to this.
“That’s why the lockdown will now go on longer.”
MPs will vote this week on the new lockdown before it comes into force on Thursday.
The lockdown will easily pass through the Commons because Keir Starmer has said Labour will vote in favour.
But furious Tory backbenchers were pledging to fight the restrictions and accused Mr Johnson of caving to his scientific advisors.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith accused the prime minister of “giving in to the scientific advisers”.
Sir Iain said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had “pressurised” the government into taking this decision, with its members “publicly lecturing” the government.
He urged Mr Johnson not to continue “encouraging businesses to reopen only to force them to lock down again”.
Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, told the BBC: “There has to be another way of doing this. If you want first-world public services, you need a first-world economy.”
Allies of Mr Johnson said the PM would stare down Tory rebels.
“Its a choice between acting now or the NHS being overwhelmed, causing unimaginable pain – if they don’t understand that they can explain it to their constituents,” a senior Tory ally of Mr Johnson told the MIrror.
Timeline: How the Tories refused to lock down – then U-turned
SAGE calls for government to consider an urgent package of five measures, one of which is a circuit breaker lockdown lasting two to three weeks.
Boris Johnson instead announces a three-tier system, saying: “Of course there are those who say that on that logic we should go back into a full national lockdown of indefinite duration, closing schools and businesses, telling people again to stay at home as we did in March, once again shuttering our lives and our society.
“I do not believe that would be the right course.
“We would not only be depriving our children of their education, we would do such damage to our economy as to erode our long term ability to fund the NHS and other crucial public services.”
Late that night, SAGE’s plea for a circuit-break lockdown from September 21 is revealed.
Keir Starmer urges the PM to impose a two to three week circuit breaker lockdown after SAGE’s recommendations emerge.
A “senior government source” tells journalists: “Keir Starmer is a shameless opportunist playing political games in the middle of a global pandemic.”
SAGE receives advice that the virus is now spreading more quickly than its own “worst case scenario” – which predicted 85,000 new deaths by the end of winter – thought it would be.
Yet Boris Johnson refuses calls to impose a circuit breaker at PMQs : “The whole point is to seize this moment now to avoid the misery of another national lockdown, into which he wants to go headlong, by delivering a regional solution.
“Opportunism is, I am afraid, the name of the game for the party opposite.”
And Chancellor Rishi Sunak says: “We must prevent the strain on our NHS from becoming unbearable, but we must also acknowledge the stark reality of the economic and social impacts of another national lockdown.
“The costs of doing that are not abstract—they are real: they can be counted in jobs lost, businesses closed and children’s educations harmed.
“They can be measured in the permanent damage done to our economy, which will undermine our long-term ability to fund our NHS and our valued public services; and they can be measured in the increase in long-term health conditions that unemployment causes.”
Boris Johnson says: “While I cannot rule anything out, if at all possible I want to avoid another national lockdown, with the damaging health, economic and social effects it would have.”
Asked if a national circuit-breaker will happen, Michael Gove replies bluntly: “No.”
Southern Tory MPs write to Andy Burnham attacking his calls for a national circuit break, saying “it does not make sense to shut down the whole country when the virus is spiking in particular locations.”
Tory ministers repeatedly attack the Greater Manchester mayor’s “posturing” and attempts to reach a deal over local lockdown cash break down two days later.
Minister George Eustice says “we don’t rule anything out” on a second national lockdown, but insists the three-tier system was the “right approach” and a national lockdown would cause “economic harm for no gain at all” in places like Cornwall where infections are low.
Robert Jenrick says: “We don’t want to create a second national lockdown. We know that has some effect on bearing down on the virus but we also know it’s immensely destructive in other regards.”
He adds any national lockdown would likely have to be brought in repeatedly through the winter.
Government scientists warn that a two week circuit breaker is now no longer enough to turn the tide and a longer lockdown will be needed, because it has grown so far since circuit break was recommended.
That night, plans leak that show Boris Johnson is plotting a second national lockdown in England.