The return of some Covid restrictions in England is not needed “for now”, the business secretary has insisted, as he denied the government was being complacent in the face of daily infections and deaths rising.
Kwasi Kwarteng also ruled out any further lockdowns, after calls from scientists and health experts for ministers to activate their “plan B” winter measures given the UK now has one of the highest weekly rates of new reported cases in the world.
Although 223 daily Covid-related UK deaths were reported on Tuesday – higher than on the same day last autumn – Kwarteng said: “I don’t see any cause for changing the course at this minute.”
Downing Street insisted on Tuesday it was not dusting off its ”plan B” for tackling Covid through what Boris Johnson admitted would be a “difficult winter”, which would include reintroducing compulsory face masks in some settings, asking people to work from home and bringing in vaccine passports.
However, the NHS Confederation, which represents the healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, told the Guardian that immediate action was required to prevent the NHS “stumbling into a crisis” where the elective care recovery would be jeopardised.
Kwarteng said the number of Covid-related deaths was not yet causing concern because it was significantly lower than during the third wave.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re looking at data on an hourly basis … For now, we think that the policy is working. Yes, increases of infection rates are being seen. But at the same time we’re very closely monitoring hospitalisations and death rates. Mercifully, they’re much, much lower than they were at the beginning of the year.
“That doesn’t mean we’re being complacent. But we do feel that the vaccination rollout has been successful, it’s allowed us to reopen the economy, it’s allowed people to get back to some semblance of normality.”
Asked if that meant ministers were not planning to introduce restrictions any times soon, Kwarteng gave an emphatic: “No.”
Some MPs fear a similar situation to last year is brewing, when ministers refused to follow recommendations from the government’s scientific advisers to institute early measures to avert more drastic action further down the line. Though the MPs think jabs have undoubtedly greatly contributed to people’s protection, the speed at which they are being offered to children aged 12-15 has led to the UK starting to lag behind other countries, with concerns also about the speed at which immunity could wane.
Kwarteng said on Wednesday he was not sure if people would be able to get a booster Covid vaccine every year, and admitted to Sky News that the slowness of take-up for third shots was “something we really need to address”.
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS hospitals, ambulance, community and mental health services, said “hard decisions” may have to be made about which patients to prioritise if Covid cases continue to rise.
She said: “Trust leaders are looking on anxiously as the number of Covid cases, hospital admission rates and patients on ventilators steadily increases.
“It is vital that the government and national NHS leaders keep a close watch on these figures and act quickly and decisively to prevent any surge that could place overwhelming pressure on the NHS, particularly as we head into winter. This should include activating ‘plan B’ in the Covid winter plan, if needed.”
She added: “It is important to recognise that as Covid-related pressures intensify, this could impact on the NHS’s ability to bear down on the care backlog. Trust leaders understand only too well the importance of minimising any delays for planned treatment. But if other pressures continue to escalate they will have to take hard decisions about priorities.”