Boris Johnson has dispatched his top policy delivery official in Number 10 back to her old job running England’s Covid vaccine programme, in a sign of growing concern over rising cases and the stuttering booster campaign.
The UK recorded 49,298 new coronavirus cases on Friday, up 10 per cent on the same day last week. Daily hospital admissions have also surpassed 1,000 a day for the first time since early September, according to the latest data.
Meanwhile, the UK’s leading science advisers urged the government to prepare for the “rapid deployment” of more stringent Covid-19 restrictions in England if infection rates and hospital pressure continue to worsen.
The prime minister insisted on Friday he could see “absolutely nothing” to indicate another lockdown would be needed, but the redeployment of Emily Lawson from Downing Street back to her old position is significant.
Lawson’s role in rolling out vaccines at the NHS prompted Johnson to hire her in April to run his new Delivery Unit, as he sought to shift Downing Street’s focus from fighting the pandemic to enacting domestic policy.
But on Friday NHS England announced Lawson was “temporarily” returning to the service for the winter. “The vaccination programme is absolutely critical over the coming months,” said one ally of Johnson.
The prime minister, visiting a vaccination centre in west London on Friday, admitted there were currently “high levels” of infection in the UK. A nationwide advertising campaign to promote booster jabs was launched on the same day.
Almost 1m people in England, about one in 55 of the total population, were estimated to have coronavirus in the week ending October 16, according to the Office for National Statistics — the highest rate since January. The figure for the previous week was one in 60.
Over the past week, 947 people have died within 28 days of a positive test, 16 per cent more than in the previous week.
But Johnson insisted this was “fully in line” with what the government expected. He has so far refused to bow to pressure from NHS leaders to activate a “Plan B” strategy of more mask-wearing, homeworking and vaccine passports for mass events, despite health secretary Sajid Javid warning that case rates could double to 100,000 a day in the UK
The Scientific Advisory Group For Emergencies (Sage) said earlier intervention would “reduce the need for more stringent, disruptive and longer-lasting measures to avoid an unacceptable level of hospitalisations”, while recognising that whether to introduce the Plan B measures was a political decision.
On Friday, Sage released minutes and accompanying papers from its meeting last week, the first since mid-September. They include modelling work by four university teams which suggested that Covid hospital admissions were “increasingly unlikely” to exceed the level of the last peak in January, even without new restrictions.
But Sage warned that Covid-19 admissions “could still put health and care settings under significant pressure, particularly if this coincides with high numbers of patients with other respiratory infections”.
Separately, the UK Health Security Agency designated the recently recognised AY.4.2 sub-variant of Delta as a “variant under investigation”. “There is some early evidence that it may have an increased growth rate in the UK compared to Delta,” the agency said. “More evidence is needed to know whether this is due to changes in the virus’ behaviour or to epidemiological conditions.”
In the past week, AY.4.2 accounted for about 6 per cent of all Delta cases in the UK. “It should serve as objective evidence that the pandemic is not over,” said Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive.
Sage scientists said many uncertainties clouded their future scenarios, particularly around waning immunity and changing social mixing patterns
Telling people to work from home if possible would have the greatest impact on infection rates among the potential Plan B measures, Sage said.
Sage also warned that “there should be no complacency around the risk posed by further viral evolution”.
The Sage scientists noted that coronavirus cases and admissions “are currently at much higher levels than in European comparators, which have retained additional measures and have greater vaccine coverage especially in children”.