Today’s big question

Coronavirus: is the UK heading for a New Year national lockdown?

Number of Covid patients in hospital set to match April peak by New Year’s Eve, Boris Johnson warned

As the new strain of Covid-19 spreads across the country, expectations are rising that the New Year could herald a third UK-wide lockdown.

Boris Johnson has been warned by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty that infections are rising across the country and last night the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said the virus was no longer confined to London and the Southeast.

It is likely that the number of areas placed into Tier 4 regulations “need to be increased”, Valance said, after Whitty privately told “the prime minister that the number of patients in hospital with Covid is on course to match the April peak by New Year's Eve - and will continue increasing in January”, the Daily Mail reports.

Happy new tier

With the Covid strain starting to appear across the country, “it is pretty obvious there will now be a clamour from some government scientists and parts of the media for most, if not all of the country to go into Tier 4”, writes Politico’s Alex Wickham.

While Vallance was clear in his warning about heightened tier regulations, government officials are less keen to be drawn on whether “Vallance’s remarks effectively amounted to him calling for a third national lockdown”, Wickham adds.

Downing Street has moved to “play down suggestions that a third national lockdown was imminent”, the Daily Mail says. However, government scientific advisers told The Guardian that a failure to lock down quickly could cost tens of thousands of lives and risk an “economic, human and social disaster”.

Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health who sits on the behavioural science advisory group for Sage, told the paper was that the current system was “unlikely” to contain the spread.

The UK will need to move to “stricter but more rational social distancing rules”, he said, as well as building a “test, travel, isolate and support programme” similar to the one seen in Asian countries that has suppressed the virus.

“It sounds expensive but the alternative could well be a catastrophic collapse in confidence in the country’s ability to control the virus and the economic, human and social disaster that would follow,” West added.

‘Blindsided’

Downing Street was aware of a rising problem in early December, with internal assessments suggesting that “there [would] be nearly 700,000 cases a week by mid- to late- February - more than three times the present level - with 20,000 hospital admissions and 5,000 deaths,” The Times reports.

However, the modelling behind those projections was done before the new mutation was discovered. The paper’s deputy political editor Steve Swinford says the extent of the threat from the new strain only became apparent in a meeting last Friday.

One government source told Swinford that after that meeting, led by chair of the government’s scientific advisory groups Professor Peter Horby: “Everyone was blindsided. I don’t think anyone in the room expected it to be quite so bad.”

The atmosphere in Downing Street after that meeting was described as “grim” by an insider, with a senior aide telling the paper that with Christmas just around the corner, their sense was “it’s all fucked”.

Backbench tiers

West’s warning is by no means confined to the scientific community. One senior Conservative tells Politico: “If the new strain is already in Tier 3 areas and the scientific advice is that Tier 3 is not enough to suppress it, we are going to have to come up with a damn good reason why we aren’t putting them in Tier 4 right away.”

The government should move to sidestep the same criticism they have received previously by moving swiftly to avoid being asked “why didn’t we do it sooner” in two weeks’ time, the MP added.

Asked why tighter restrictions were not being rolled out more widely, a government spokesperson said that “we’ve been clear that people shouldn’t be travelling out of Tier 4 areas, and I would point to the changes that we have made in terms of Tier 4”. “We’re being clear that people should remain at home and limit human interaction,” they added.

One senior Tory told the Daily Mail that Johnson had decided against “ordering another national lockdown at the weekend only after Chief Whip Mark Spencer warned it would spark a mutiny among Conservative MPs”. 

But with the new strain cropping up further and further away from the Southeast, the scientific advisers closest to Johnson are beginning to warn that “stronger curbs” are likely, The Guardian reports.

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