The UK’s Covid booster rollout will prevent “significant economic restrictions” being reinstated in the UK, Rishi Sunak has insisted, despite growing concern about rising infection rates as winter approaches.
The chancellor said the country was “in a very different place to where we were a year ago” and would not need another lockdown even though he admitted the coming months would be “challenging”.
Dr Emily Lawson was seconded to No 10’s delivery unit – a team in charge of ensuring the government delivers on policies – in April. On Friday it emerged she had returned to the health service at a time when scientific advisers have told the government that plan B measures must be “rapidly” deployed to tackle rising numbers of Covid cases.
For the past week, the number of new Covid cases per day has been between 40,000 and 50,000.
Scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said in minutes of a meeting held earlier this month that was published on Friday that a further huge spike in infections as seen in January – which saw a peak of 67,775 cases a day – was “increasingly unlikely”.
And they warned that measures from the government’s back-up plan would have greatest effect if brought in all at once at an early, rather than later, stage.
Measures that scientists said would have a large impact include a return to compulsory face masks and working from home. The group has also advised that “policy work on the potential reintroduction of measures should be undertaken now so that it can be ready for rapid deployment”.
But Mr Sunak told The Times that the UK could not return to “significant economic restrictions” and the vaccine rollout meant that such measure would not be necessary.
“There’s a range of options that are available, and those are not options that involve lockdowns or very significant economic restrictions,” Mr Sunak added.
On Saturday, a government adviser has said it was “quite questionable” for Mr Sunak to suggest that vaccine boosters will be enough to prevent future lockdowns.
Professor Adam Finn, member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told Times Radio: “I think we do, probably need to do more than that now.”
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said on Friday that he does not have plans for another lockdown.
On a visit to a vaccination centre in west London, he was asked whether a full lockdown with “stay at home” advice and shops closing was out of the question this winter, and he replied: “I’ve got to tell you at the moment that we see absolutely nothing to indicate that that’s on the cards at all.”
However, he has urged people eligible for a booster jab before the winter months to get one as take-up for third doses has been slower than for the first two jabs.
In a video posted on Twitter, Mr Johnson said: “This pandemic isn’t over and the danger hasn’t gone away.
“It’s just as vital to get your booster if you are called as it was to get your first and second jabs.”
The slower progress of uptake for the third jabs as the temperatures drop could be one of the reasons for Dr Lawson is being moved back to the NHS from No 10.
An estimated 5.3 million booster doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been delivered in the UK.
It means around one in nine people in the UK who have received a first and second dose of vaccine are likely to have also received a booster.
Fewer than half of residents in care homes for elderly people in England have received a coronavirus booster jab, according to the latest available NHS data.
This is while the average daily hospital admissions in England of people with Covid-19 have climbed to their highest level for nearly eight months.
Dame Kate Bingham, ex-chairwoman of the vaccine taskforce, said she feared the “great British success story” of its vaccination scheme is “at risk of stalling”.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, she said: “I am genuinely worried that the great gains we have made in the last ten months risk being eroded with potentially serious consequences.
Meanwhile, a statement from unions representing three workers in the UK criticised the government’s “laissez-faire approach to managing the pandemic”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told the paper: “We all want to beat Covid once and for all and to avoid further lockdowns. But without decisive action now we risk sleepwalking into another winter of chaos.”
Additional reporting by PA