GLEN OWEN tells how Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas
It felt like a meeting of horror movie scriptwriters: GLEN OWEN tells the inside story of how a libertarian PM ended up feeling he had no choice but to cancel Christmas
The grim countenances of Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance told the story before they even started talking – Christmas was off. As Boris Johnson sat in the Cabinet Room at 5pm on Friday, Whitty and Vallance appeared on the Zoom monitors and started reeling off increasingly alarming data about the new mutant strain of the coronavirus.
In what one participant described as ‘a script from a horror film’, they told the shaken-looking Prime Minister that the variant was 70 per cent more transmissible – and was already responsible for the majority of new infections in the ‘hotspot’ of London and the South East.
Despite tiny slivers of positive news – that it was not thought more likely to kill sufferers or render the vaccines ineffective – the message from the scientists was clear: without swift and draconian action, the critical ‘R’ number at which the virus spreads would rise by up to 0.9.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pictured during a conference to tell people in the south of England their Christmas plans would have to be cancelled
When the committee heard that infections had risen in London by 66 per cent over the past two weeks, and that 60 per cent of those in the capital were due to the new variant, Mr Johnson stopped arguing the point and turned to the action which needed to be taken. Pictured left, Patrick Vallance. Right, Chris Whitty
In what one participant described as ‘a script from a horror film’, they told the shaken-looking Prime Minister that the variant was 70 per cent more transmissible. Pictured, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance
With the rate currently between 1.1 and 1.3 in the South East, it would be a matter of weeks before each infected person was passing the infection to two other people, an exponential increase which could soon overwhelm the country’s spare intensive care capacity.
Mr Johnson immediately called a meeting of Covid-0, the Cabinet sub-committee he chairs containing senior colleagues such as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove. Delivering the bleak news, the Prime Minister made a valiant bid to stick to his policy of lifting the restrictions on household mixing over Christmas.
But when the committee heard that infections had risen in London by 66 per cent over the past two weeks, and that 60 per cent of those in the capital were due to the new variant, Mr Johnson stopped arguing the point and turned to the action which needed to be taken.
Covid-O met again yesterday morning to allow Ministers such as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to crunch through the restrictions and exemptions which applied to their departments. After signing them off, Mr Johnson then rang Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to brief him on the measures being introduced, while Mr Gove did the same for Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland.
Boris Johnson (pictured) immediately called a meeting of Covid-0, the Cabinet sub-committee he chairs containing senior colleagues such as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove
When he held the Cabinet meeting at 1pm yesterday, Mr Johnson – who declared only on Wednesday that it would be ‘inhuman’ to ‘cancel Christmas’ – struck a sombre note as he said: ‘You can probably tell from my voice that I don’t rejoice in any of this. But I do not see that we have any choice.’
Experts who panicked Boris Johnson into action
The impetus for Boris Johnson’s move came from a little-known group called Nervtag – the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – which advises Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, who in turn played such a critical role in persuading the Prime Minister to order the crippling festive lockdown.
Nervtag – whose members included Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London before he was forced to quit after breaking lockdown rules to meet his married lover – met on Friday to discuss the new mutant strain. Its findings were then cited by Prof Whitty in a meeting with the Prime Minister later that day.
But one senior Whitehall source claimed to The Mail on Sunday that the majority of Nervtag members were opposed to taking immediate action and wanted to wait for more evidence. The source said: ‘Evidence is emerging day by day from Public Health England, but Ministers have been bullied into action by a vocal minority which believes that, in the style of Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army, we should be panicking much more frequently. This new variant seems more transmissible, but there is no evidence it is more deadly.
‘There is an argument that it could put the Health Service under more pressure but London is well-provided for with hospital beds. A quarter of all transmission happens in hospital, not the community.’
As Mr Johnson set out the chilling data, and said that the World Health Organisation had been informed, the usual lockdown sceptics remained largely silent – apart from one Minister, who expressed concern that scientists could be manipulating the figures to steamroller the country into another devastating lockdown.
The Minister might have been largely alone within yesterday’s Cabinet, but not on the Tory backbenches where the sceptics have been muttering about a ‘new Project Fear’ since Mr Hancock first made reference to the mutant strain last Monday.
Their reservations have been shared by isolated voices within the scientific establishment, who have argued that it is impossible to form an accurate impression of the situation based on just a few days’ statistics.
But Mr Johnson was adamant: it would be irresponsible to ignore the data, despite the impact on Christmas, because he had insisted from the onset of the crisis that he would be ‘guided by the science’.
It was agreed that the existing tier 3 areas in London and the South East should be moved to a new tier 4, an effective return to lockdown, and that plans to allow households to mix in those areas over Christmas should be abandoned – a move affecting one third of the population in England. In the remaining areas, a semblance of Christmas would be retained by allowing three households to mix on Christmas Day only.
It was another screeching U-turn in the Government’s often chaotic handling of the pandemic, but one which No 10 argues had become inevitable.
The measures affected every Cabinet Minister around the virtual table: for Mr Shapps, he is facing the collapse of travel plans for millions forced to stay at home unexpectedly over Christmas.
Foreign travel has also been thrown into chaos – anyone in tier 4 who has booked a holiday abroad as the measures currently stand will be breaking the law if they decide to go on it.
And given that the mutant strain is currently limited to the UK, it is widely expected in No 10 that foreign governments will soon put British travellers on a banned list to prevent the new strain from ‘seeding’ in their communities. Mr Sunak, who last week extended his furlough scheme to April, realises that he faces yet more pressure to bail out businesses which have been forced to close down in the vital run-up to Christmas.
The Cabinet gloom was deepened by the grim ‘optics’ of deploying the legal might of the state to stop families from seeing each other at the most emotionally charged time of the year.
Although Mr Johnson’s aides insist there will not be ‘police jumping over garden gates’ on Christmas Day, it is not something which the libertarian Tory leader will enjoy seeing on his political CV.
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