Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Sunday insisted the government was not planning “significant economic restrictions” in England to deal with coronavirus this winter, but there are signs that ministers could soon launch their plan B.
Sunak said there were no plans to “immediately” introduce the winter course of action for Covid-19, a limited set of measures focused on mask-wearing, guidance to work from home and vaccine passports at mass events.
But government officials have been working on the possibility of an early rollout of plan B and allies of health secretary Sajid Javid said only that “we are not there yet”.
Covid-19 cases have been rising in the UK in recent weeks. On Sunday the UK reported 39,962 cases in the latest 24-hour period, and 72 deaths.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the government should focus on its winter plan A in England based around Covid-19 vaccines, notably by sorting out problems with the stumbling booster-shot campaign.
But she said plan B should be activated if that was what scientists recommended. NHS leaders have urged ministers to bring in new restrictions now to avoid a winter hospital crisis.
Javid tweeted that more than 325,000 booster jabs were delivered on Saturday. “That’s our biggest day yet,” he said.
Sunak said he was not preparing to roll out a new furlough programme to support company workers over the winter — the original scheme ended last month — because plan B “does not involve significant economic restrictions”.
“The best protection against all of these things is vaccinations and the booster rollout,” he told the BBC. “At the moment the data does not suggest we should immediately be moving to plan B.”
Meanwhile, the UK Health Security Agency has contacted local councils to canvass the level of support for the “immediate rollout of the winter plan — plan B”, the Observer newspaper reported.
Javid’s allies said it was right to carry out contingency planning and the government would act if the NHS was placed under “unsustainable pressure”.
Government officials said they did not at present expect to shorten the gap of six months between somebody receiving their second vaccination and being offered a booster jab.
Ministers will be advised by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on any changes, but one official said experts still believed six months was the “sweet spot” in terms of offering maximum protection.
Professor Adam Finn, a JCVI member, told Sky News that the vaccine programme had suffered “as a consequence that somehow the problem is gone and we can all go back to normal again”.
And he put more pressure on ministers to move to plan B. “One way or another, we need to bring about a situation where there is less transmission of the virus going on in the community,” he said. “We can’t just rely on the vaccine programme to achieve that.”
Javid is overhauling the booking system for booster jabs to allow people aged over 50 to book their third jab a month earlier than currently permitted, his allies said.
At the moment, they cannot start the booking process until six months after their second jab.
Javid said last week that people should consider wearing masks in crowded places where they were mixing with strangers, but many Conservative MPs — including Sunak — have declined to do so in the House of Commons.