Cabinet data gap backlash as ministers split over new Covid curbs

Cabinet data gap backlash as ministers split over new Covid curbs and demand more information on Omicron amid row over modelling

  • Several ministers have called for more information on the impact of Omicron 
  • A growing number of experts have also pushed back on ‘pessimistic’ modelling
  • Opposition followed a growing row over forecasts presented to the Cabinet 

Ministers, MPs and health experts demanded better data on the impact of Omicron last night amid a row over the modelling used to push the case for new Covid curbs.

At an emergency Cabinet meeting lasting more than two hours, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Grant Shapps were among several ministers who are said to have called for more precise information on the likely impact of the variant.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Alister Jack and Nigel Adams were also said to have opposed any reintroduction of punitive curbs without clearer evidence of Omicron’s severity.

Shoppers, some wearing face coverings, walk in Manchester on December 20. Ministers, MPs and health experts demanded better data on the impact of Omicron last night

A growing number of experts pushed back at the ‘pessimistic’ modelling and ‘implausible’ predictions of thousands of deaths and soaring hospital admissions.

Their opposition followed a growing row over forecasts presented to the Cabinet by the Government’s Sage scientific advisers on Saturday, which claimed that Covid deaths could reach 6,000 a day without more restrictions soon.

Details of the modelling were leaked to the BBC.

Several experts and MPs publicly questioned the assumptions behind it, suggesting that Sage scientists needed to show their working before it could be used to justify new restrictions.

They pointed out that – amid growing evidence that Omicron causes ‘milder’ illness – there was still huge uncertainty over what proportion of cases end up in hospital and how effective vaccines are at preventing infection, serious illness and death.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, condemned the apparent obsession with ‘worst case scenarios’ and said the country was in a ‘very different place’ to last year because of vaccines.

Mark Harper, chairman of the Tory backbench Covid Recovery Group, said: ‘These are big decisions affecting everyone’s lives, people’s livelihoods and mental wellbeing across the country.

We all deserve to see the data ministers see. Show us your workings. We can do so much better than this.’

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (pictured) didn’t show up to a Cobra emergency committee convened over the weekend

Ministers have cited evidence that hospitalisations have risen in London in the last two weeks, with the capital having more Omicron infections than anywhere else in the UK.

But Cambridge University professor David Spiegelhalter suggested this may simply be a reflection of the transmissibility of the variant rather than its severity.

At yesterday’s virtual Cabinet meeting, several ministers were said to have made clear they were unwilling to bring in restrictions until they had better data.

However, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove was one of those arguing in favour of tough action. He was backed by Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

Ministers are waiting for updated modelling from Imperial College London, expected tomorrow, before any further decisions.

Last night, former Cabinet minister Esther McVey praised Boris Johnson for holding off from toughening restrictions.

She tweeted she was pleased the Cabinet and PM ‘are now listening to their backbench MPs and for once pushed back on the scaremongering by the lockdown fanatics’.

Labour, meanwhile, were in a muddle, unable to say which further curbs they would support.

Asked on Good Morning Britain what restrictions Labour would specifically introduce, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves replied: ‘That’s not the job of the Opposition. We don’t have the information.’

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves (pictured) told Good Morning Britain that if the Labour party was in charge, it would follow Sage advice

She then said the party would follow Sage advice, adding: ‘At the moment Sage aren’t calling for any specific measures but they are saying that more action is needed.’

Referring to a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee convened over the weekend at which decisions were taken on increasing funding to tackle Omicron, Miss Reeves said: ‘If I was in government, I would have been at those Covid meetings yesterday to get all of that evidence and make a decision.

‘The Prime Minister and the Chancellor didn’t even turn up. They are not interested in hearing the advice.

‘If we were in government, we would be at those meetings and put in place the measures.’

Figures from South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, suggest it is far less deadly than the previous dominant variant, Delta.

Dr Pieter Streicher, from the University of Johannesburg, said the case fatality rate – the number who test positive and die – has fallen by a factor of 19 – from 3 per cent to 0.16 per cent, meaning only 16 deaths in every 1,000 infected.

He added that cases are coming down ‘rapidly’ in Gauteng, the province which was the epicentre of the Omicron outbreak, with hospital and intensive care bed numbers peaking.

Professor Heneghan warned that overly pessimistic modelling meant Britain was in danger of imposing yearly lockdowns.

He said the rollout of vaccines, booster jabs and antivirals had cut the risk of hospitalisation and death, which is ‘as good as it gets’, and people should be trusted to make their own decisions about the risks they want to take.

Professor Graham Medley, who chairs the modelling group that feeds into Sage, suggested that the committee does not consider optimistic scenarios because ‘that doesn’t get decisions made’.

Professor Keith Willison, a chemical biologist at Imperial, criticised the models as ‘widely pessimistic’, adding they were being used to ‘frighten the UK population into submission and further lockdown’. 

Analysis 

By Eleanor Hayward 

Resisting pressure for another round of draconian restrictions, Boris Johnson last night insisted he was monitoring data on Omicron ‘hour by hour’.

Officials in Downing Street will spend the four remaining days until Christmas poring over hospital admission figures, along with studies from around the world.

This data will determine if we will be allowed to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends and family.

People queue at a Covid vaccination centre in London this Monday. Ministers remain hopeful Omicron may be less severe than previous variants 

While Government scientists have argued for further curbs to prevent the NHS toppling under a wave of Omicron patients, the Prime Minister and his team remain unconvinced.

They insist there is not sufficient evidence to justify plunging Britain into a fourth lockdown, with all the catastrophic economic and social damage this would entail. 

With the situation ‘very, very finely balanced’, the Government is waiting for more evidence on three key issues.

SEVERITY

There is no doubt Omicron is more infectious. The mutant strain arrived in Britain less than a month ago, but has already outcompeted Delta to become dominant. 

Infections are higher than ever, with 102,297 positive tests recorded last Wednesday, the first time daily cases have topped 100,000.

At any other point in the pandemic, this ferocious growth would almost certainly have been followed by new restrictions.

But ministers remain hopeful Omicron may be less severe than previous variants – and there is some evidence that this will prove to be the case.

Scientists in South Africa say Omicron patients are 29 per cent less likely to need hospital treatment than with previous variants.

A study of 211,000 Covid patients also found the proportion requiring intensive care was half that of previous waves, and most recover at home within three days.

Meanwhile, two studies have provided plausible biological reasons for why Omicron is less likely to cause severe disease and lung damage.

A team of Cambridge University researchers, led by Professor Ravi Gupta, found signs Omicron is less effective than other variants at infecting cells in the deep part of the lung.

This tallies with findings from the University of Hong Kong which suggested the variant replicates at a tenth of Delta’s speed in the lungs, reducing the severity of illness.

HOSPITAL ADMISSIONS

Ministers have stressed they will only consider another lockdown if the NHS faces a wave of Covid hospitalisations that would cause other care to collapse.

But the Prime Minister yesterday said there is considerable ‘uncertainty’ over the key question of ‘how many people does Omicron put into hospital’.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies told ministers last week that daily hospital admissions would reach 3,000 in January without further restrictions. Sage said early action is needed to avert a crisis.

But their modelling assumes Omicron is no less severe than previous variants.

If – as hoped – vaccines provide a good level of protection, a lockdown may prove unnecessary.

In South Africa admissions are at just 57 per cent of the previous peak despite the number of cases being similar. And latest NHS data shows hospitalisations remain stable.

While weekly cases have surged 61 per cent, admissions are up just six per cent.

Currently an average of 864 Covid patients are being admitted a day, down from 4,200 at the January peak, and more than 2,000 this time last year.

And on January 18, a record 39,254 Covid patients were in hospital beds across the UK – five times yesterday’s figure of 7,482.

VACCINES AND BOOSTERS

Government scientists and politicians can agree on one thing: Without vaccines the UK would be in a ‘massive, massive mess’.

It is clear existing vaccines, in particular boosters, protect against Omicron. But there is enormous uncertainty about whether the ramped-up vaccine rollout will be sufficient to fight off the variant.

Data from the UK Health Security Agency shows two doses are not enough to prevent infection by Omicron. But a booster of Pfizer or Moderna tops up protection to around 75 per cent compared with the unvaccinated.

A person receives a Covid vaccine in London this Sunday. With 50 per cent of Britain’s over-12s now boosted, vaccines provide the strongest argument against new restrictions

Three doses are also likely to offer higher protection against severe disease, keeping hospitalisation and death rates low.

With 50 per cent of Britain’s over-12s now boosted, and nearly one million jabs being delivered each day, vaccines provide the strongest argument against new restrictions.

Eight in ten UK adults have now been double-jabbed. Although this may no longer be enough to prevent infection, it is still likely to offer some protection against severe disease.

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