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The Health Secretary is planning to set up academy style hospitals to tackle post-pandemic waiting lists.

Under the re-organisation, Sajid Javid will give more freedom to well-run hospitals that manage to treat patients quickly.

But he will come down hard on failing NHS trusts in an attempt to deal with the ‘huge’ variation in performance across the health service.

It would see poorly-run hospitals turned into ‘reform trusts’, The Times reports, similar to the Blairite reforms where schools rated as inadequate were taken over. 

And leading NHS managers, or outside sponsors, could also be parachuted in to take charge of chains of hospitals. 

The plans are still in their early stages, and are due to be set out in a white paper later this year.

But they raise the prospect of the NHS facing several reforms at once, sparking fears the tweaks could be ‘inconsistent’ with each other. 

The shake-up comes on the tail of a new study that suggests employing more health managers or paying them higher salaries does not improve the quality of NHS hospitals. 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid with NHS staff at the King's College hospital in London earlier this month. He told MPs last year he would be 'watchful for any waste or wokery' as he awarded the NHS a record funding boost

Health Secretary Sajid Javid with NHS staff at the King’s College hospital in London earlier this month. He told MPs last year he would be ‘watchful for any waste or wokery’ as he awarded the NHS a record funding boost

NHS waiting lists have spiralled to a record 6million since the pandemic began, after whole wards were turned over to fighting Covid

More than 300,000 of these patients have been on the list for over a year — often in pain — waiting for operations such as hip and knee replacements.

And 18,500 have queued for at least two years — seven times more than last summer.

One in NINE people in England now on NHS waiting list 

One in nine people in England were on the NHS waiting list for routine operations by the end of November, the latest figures show.

There are also record numbers of cancer and A&E patients waiting dangerously long times to be seen, official figures show.

Experts warned the ‘shocking data’ laid bare the wider impact of Omicron on the health service and highlighted that many patients were being ‘let down’ by the deepening crisis in the NHS.

Statistics published by NHS England today showed a record 6million people were stuck on NHS waiting lists for elective care by the end of November, just as the ultra-transmissible variant began to take off.

More than 300,000 patients had waited over a year — often in pain — for ops such as hip and knee replacements or cataracts surgery. 

Of them, 18,500 had queued for at least two years — seven times more than last summer.

At the same time, just two-thirds (67.5 per cent) of cancer patients were given their first treatment within two months of the disease first being detected — the lowest number ever. 

Only three-quarters of suspected cancer patients were referred to a specialist within the NHS two-week target, another low.

Cancer charities warned the ‘agonising delays’ were causing ‘huge amounts of distress and anxiety’ for people living with cancer, and warned the waits ‘can risk a worse prognosis’.

Ambulances are now struggling to get to patients in time, prompting some to recommend people suffering heart attacks should make their own way to hospital.

Meanwhile, just two thirds of cancer patients were given their first treatment within two months of the disease being detected — the lowest number ever.

And only three-quarters of suspected cancer patients were referred to a specialist in the NHS within two weeks, another record low. 

Boris Johnson is said to be keen to slash waiting times in the NHS as part of ‘operation red meat’, which aims to move the national conversation on from lockdown-busting Downing Street parties.

But allies of Mr Javid said the reforms were already being planned long before the Prime Minister’s current woes. 

A Whitehall source told The Times: ‘Sajid’s reform agenda is all about driving up performance across the NHS.

‘To achieve that we are going to apply some lessons from the academies programme.’

There are fears the plans could spark a mis-match with other NHS reforms already heading through parliament.

Last July the Health and Care bill was unveiled, which conversely would give the NHS less freedom because the Department of Health would gain controlling power over it.

Mr Javid has already tried to dump the reform saying there were ‘significant areas of contention’, tabled by his predecessor Matt Hancock, but was overruled by the Prime Minister.

In a separate reform plans are also being laid for more collaboration between hospitals and the care sector. 

At present there are many patients in hospitals who are well enough to be discharged, but can’t be because of problems finding beds in the care sector. 

Richard Murray, from the health care think-tank the King’s Fund, said: ‘Any further changes must be consistent with [the Health and Care bill] proposals or risk looking incoherent.’

It comes as a study found NHS trusts with highly paid bosses were just as likely to have poor finances, long waiting lists and high death rates as those on a smaller payroll. 

Researchers say this is likely to be because NHS managers spend more time on bureaucratic box-ticking than on trying to boost staff performance.

They also have little discretion in how to perform their role unlike leaders in the private sector, London School of Economics (LSE) researchers noted.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs last year he would be ‘watchful for any waste or wokery’ as he awarded the NHS a record funding boost.

His comments led to speculation there could be a cut in the number of highly-paid managers so more money is available for patient care.

Mr Javid appointed former vice chief of defence staff Sir Gordon Messenger to lead an overhaul of NHS management.

The general, who led the Royal Marines’ invasion of Iraq, has been asked to look at how the NHS can boost efficiency and improve care.

Employing more health managers or paying them higher salaries does not improve the quality of NHS hospitals, a study suggests (file photo used)

Employing more health managers or paying them higher salaries does not improve the quality of NHS hospitals, a study suggests (file photo used)

The LSE study, published in the Journal of Applied Public Economics, analysed data on 129 hospital trusts between 2012/13 and 2018/19, looking at factors such as financial position, elective and emergency waiting times and deaths.

This was compared to the number of managers each trust employed and the amount spent on them.

The economists said: ‘We find no evidence of an association between our measures of quantity of managerial input and quality of management.

‘Furthermore, we find no associations between our measures of quantity of management input and five measures of hospital performance.’

They added: ‘This holds, irrespective of how we define managerial input, whether by number of managers or expenditure on management.’

Researchers also say there is limited variation in salaries and pensions available to NHS managers, meaning there is ‘little room for exceptionally good managers to shine or exceptionally bad managers to do much damage to overall hospital performance’.

Chris Hopson, chief of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, had said managers with the most challenging roles should be offered similar rewards to those running school academies.

Those leading of large chains have attracted salaries as high as £450,000.

The highest paid hospital chief executives are earning as much as £300,000.

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Two years have passed since Covid-19 erupted onto the global stage, disrupting our lives and killing more than 5.5 million people worldwide.

And it’s just over a year since the UK’s coronavirus vaccine programme began, saving well over 100,000 lives, as well as preventing countless others from ending up in hospital and suffering long-term damage from Covid.

And yet there are still about five million people in the UK who choose not to be vaccinated. Many seem convinced that either they are not at risk or that ‘natural’ immunity will save them.

People such as the unvaccinated consultant Dr Steve James, who made the headlines last week when he confronted the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, over the Government’s decision to make having a Covid vaccination by April a condition of working on the NHS frontline.

It¿s just over a year since the UK¿s coronavirus vaccine programme began, saving well over 100,000 lives, as well as preventing countless others from ending up in hospital and suffering long-term damage from Covid

It’s just over a year since the UK’s coronavirus vaccine programme began, saving well over 100,000 lives, as well as preventing countless others from ending up in hospital and suffering long-term damage from Covid

Indeed, it is thought that there are tens of thousands of unvaccinated frontline NHS staff, who now have less than three weeks to get their first jab, which they must have by February 3 if they are to be double vaccinated by the Government deadline of April 1.

Dr James was objecting to mandatory vaccines against Covid, despite the fact that he, and other doctors working with vulnerable patients in the NHS, have already had to prove to their hospital trust that they have been vaccinated against hepatitis, an unpleasant and highly infectious virus (though not as infectious as Covid).

Dr James claimed that ‘the science is not strong enough’ and that he didn’t need a vaccine because he had antibodies, showing he had acquired some ‘natural’ immunity through infection.

Meanwhile, the unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic used a similar argument to get into Australia — claiming an exemption on the grounds that he had Covid in December and would, therefore, be protected by his antibodies.

The trouble with this argument is that, firstly, the unvaccinated and unboosted make up the majority of those in intensive care. And secondly, just because you have antibodies against a previous strain of Covid, that does not mean you are protected against catching, or spreading it to more vulnerable people such as patients with cancer or pregnant women.

A study published in December, by researchers from Imperial College London, concluded that the protection against Omicron, if you have had a prior Covid infection ‘may be as low as 19 per cent’. A course of vaccines — the double dose plus the booster — on the other hand, offers something like 75 per cent protection.

Why the difference? It appears that our immune systems are very good at learning from experience. The more often your immune system is challenged by a virus (or a vaccine, which is mimicking that virus), the better it gets at defending itself against it.

The first time your immune system encounters a virus it isn’t quite sure how to react and it takes time to start building an effective response. While that is happening, the virus is busy replicating, spreading and doing damage.

If you’re lucky, your immune system will spring into action and you will recover after a trivial illness. If you are unlucky, you end up in hospital, perhaps in intensive care. The idea of a vaccine is that your immune system gets the nudge to start working long before you are exposed to the real thing.

The reason for a second, and even third jab, is this amplifies and refines your immune response to protect you, and others, in the future.

Multiple exposures seems to be particularly effective at educating your T-cells, immune cells responsible for seeking out and killing dangerous viruses, and which are vital for conferring long-term immunity. T-cells also seem to be much better than antibodies at detecting and destroying new variants of Covid.

And this matters because one of the main reasons for getting vaccinated, as far as I’m concerned, is that by doing so you’re protecting others — particularly the vulnerable who cannot have a jab.

We know that people who are vaccinated carry a lower load of virus, and clear it faster from their bodies, so there is a much lower chance they will pass it on. Vaccines, of course, can have side-effects and are not 100 per cent effective. One of the criticisms of Covid vaccines is that, despite being triple jabbed, you can still get infected and become ill.

This is true, though you’re far less likely to get seriously ill than if you were completely unprotected. And there is the consolation that you may now have ‘super immunity’. In a study by the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research in Boston in the U.S., researchers tested the blood of people who’d caught Covid after being double vaccinated.

They now had a 30-fold increase in levels of antibodies and a four-fold increase in levels of T-cells, compared with patients who had been vaccinated and who had not got Covid; which bodes well for future encounters with the virus.

And it also seems to work the other way round. I wrote in this column, before Christmas, that I had told an unvaccinated friend that I didn’t want her to come to a social gathering because of the risk she posed.

Since then, she and her husband became quite ill with Covid. And I am still suggesting, when she recovers, she might consider having a jab.

That’s because studies have shown that people who have a vaccine after they’ve been infected produce much higher levels of antibodies and T-cells than those who, like Novak Djokovic and Dr James, just rely on ‘natural’ immunity.

I’m optimistic we have Covid on the run. But I’m also convinced it will happen faster, and with less disruption, once vaccine-hesitant people realise the benefits of being jabbed.

Some people who are against mandatory vaccinations for NHS staff suggest we could test people for antibodies to Covid-19, and if they have them that would mean they are safe to work. But just because you have antibodies doesn’t mean you can’t infect others or get infected. That’s why regulators, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have recommended that antibody tests should not currently be used to evaluate a person’s level of immunity or protection from a Covid infection. 

Being a bit delusional can actually be good for you!

As a natural pessimist, I’ve worked hard to look on the bright side of life and believe things will work out, as I know it’s good for me: optimists tend to live longer, be healthier and sleep better.

My wife, Clare, is an optimist and I find it galling that she refuses to share some of my more negative predictions about the future. I sometimes wonder if her optimism is a form of self-delusion.

If so, she’s not alone. According to researchers from the University of Antwerp in Belgium, self-delusion is very common. In a recent paper in the journal Philosophical Psychology, they describe different techniques we use to protect our fragile egos from the harsh realities of life. Many of these techniques, I must admit, I recognise.

First, there is the ‘reorganisation of beliefs’. An example of this is parents who are convinced their child is brilliant and blame bad grades on the teacher. Another technique, if you are determined to hold on to your beliefs, is to avoid going anywhere where those beliefs might be challenged. And if they are challenged, why not just reject what you are being told by casting doubt on the credibility of the source?

Finally, you can just tune out the stuff you don’t want to hear. Perhaps your doctor tells you that you are in good shape but could do with losing some weight. All you hear is: ‘You’re in good shape.’

Does it matter? In many circumstances a bit of self-delusion can be a good thing.

There is evidence people who put a positive spin on things are happier and better liked than those who are more realistic. And when it comes to loved ones, a study by the State University of New York in 1998 found the stronger a couple’s illusions about each other, the more likely the relationship was to survive.

The fact that I think Clare is as lovely as when we first met may well be a delusion, but it is one that makes us both happy.

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Furious tourism bosses today blasted Rishi Sunak for ‘leaving them in the cold’ after the industry was excluded from his new £1billion Covid support package.  

The Chancellor has announced grants of up to £6,000 per premises for hospitality and leisure firms being crippled by a wave of cancellations following the emergence of the Omicron strain. 

The taxpayer will also cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences for companies with fewer than 250 employees. 

However, there was nothing of note for tourism firms, despite surging cancellations for overseas trips amid tougher testing and self-isolation rules for people arriving in the UK.

Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: ‘It is devastating to see that once again business travel and its supply chain have been left out of Government financial support.

‘It’s imperative that the arts, hospitality and leisure are given help through the latest wave of the pandemic. However, a vital part of the UK economy and the driver behind global Britain is being left in the cold.

‘We urgently need the Treasury to correct this oversight and support our industry into 2022. This is the only way for there to be a safe return to international travel when conditions allow.’

Luke Petherbridge, director of public affairs for travel trade organisation Abta, claimed Mr Sunak’s announcement ‘ignores the direct impact of Government policy decisions on businesses reliant on international travel’.

He said: ‘Travel agents, tour operators and travel management companies will rightly be asking why they haven’t been given the same treatment as other businesses that are suffering at this time.

‘Average annual revenue across the travel industry is down by nearly 80% on pre-crisis levels even before Omicron emerged, and the reintroduction of enhanced testing – both pre and post-arrival – have added significant costs and notably dampened consumer demand.

‘As the sector approaches what should be the peak sales period for booking holidays for summer 2022, businesses are instead facing another round of heart-breaking and demoralising cancellations, with no indication that the Government is listening to the challenges they are facing.’

Mr Petherbridge urged the Government to lift ‘unnecessary travel restrictions’ immediately, provide grants to the travel sector which are similar to those announced for hospitality, and consider the need for the furlough scheme to be reintroduced.

Rain Newton-Smith, CBI chief economist, said the international travel and tourism sector ‘remains disappointingly out of scope despite the heavy toll it has taken for many months’.

The move came as another 90,629 Covid cases were recorded in 24 hours, along with 172 deaths. A further 15,363 infections with the Omicron variant have bee confirmed, bringing the total to 60,508. 

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street today) has stepped back from imposing punitive lockdown curbs that would have ruined Christmas

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street today) has stepped back from imposing punitive lockdown curbs that would have ruined Christmas

The rush hour at King's Cross in London was quieter than normal this morning amid Covid concerns and with Christmas just a few days away

The rush hour at King’s Cross in London was quieter than normal this morning amid Covid concerns and with Christmas just a few days away 

Other sectors were equally scathing, with arts bosses describing the level of support as ‘inadequate’ and ‘bordering on the insulting’.

The Treasury announced that cultural organisations in England can access a further £30 million funding during the winter via the culture recovery fund.

The £1.57 billion CRF was launched in July 2020 with the objective of protecting Britain’s cultural, arts and heritage institutions.

Groups criticised the extent of the support and the decision to distribute it through the fund, saying a system of emergency support packages is instead needed.

The announcement follows a string of cancelled theatre performances, with The Lion King and Life Of Pi among the West End shows having to dim their lights due to Covid-enforced staff shortages, as well as a fall in attendance at grassroots live music venues.

Mark Davyd, founder and chief executive of Music Venue Trust, said: ‘We will need to see further details on the £30 million package announced to support the cultural sector. Our initial response is that this funding seems detached from the reality.

‘If correct, it would be inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem – we note that grassroots music venues are not even mentioned in the statement despite DCMS having all the evidence they need that losses in this sector alone will run to £22 million by end of January.’

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, described the newly-announced support as ‘far too little’.

He said: ‘Businesses are failing, people are losing their livelihoods and the industry is crippled. Mixed messaging, coupled with additional restrictions, have had a catastrophic impact on our sector over the last two weeks.

‘At this critical point, we need strong leadership and a clear pathway from Government with a long-term strategy for new Covid variants.

‘The open/close strategy is crucifying businesses. Every pound of help is much needed. But this package is far too little and borders on the insulting.’

Theatres Trust director Jon Morgan welcomed the announcement of mandatory grants.

He said: ‘The additional mandatory grants of up to £6,000 are also welcome and will be particularly helpful to smaller theatres. We hope that both funds are distributed as quickly as possible to help protect theatres.

‘Theatres across the country are already struggling with shows being cancelled due to infections and falling ticket sales, as audiences follow Government advice to be cautious, so this support is very much needed.’

Paul W Fleming, general secretary of Equity, the trade union for performing arts workers, said: ‘The lack of financial support for the creative workforce in today’s announcement from the Chancellor is a shocking example of Government negligence when Equity members are staring into a winter of cancelled shows, bookings and performances.

‘Many producers, workplaces and artists are ineligible for Cultural Recovery Funding. Instead of another inadequate, vague, headline deal for bosses and buildings, we need an urgent plan to protect all those working in theatre and entertainment industries during this critical Christmas season.’

He said these should include a new furlough scheme for performers and stage management, increasing statutory sick pay and extending it to self-employed taxpayers, and targeted support for creative team members, entertainers and variety artists through new grants.

Head of theatre workers union Bectu, Philippa Childs, said the support would arrive too slowly if it was distributed through the CRF.

She said: ‘The Culture Recovery Fund is not equipped to deal with the rapid response necessary to alleviate the current Covid crisis for theatres and live events. It is focused on buildings not people, is too cumbersome and too slow.

‘We need an emergency support package for our members who are facing another Christmas of work cancellations and uncertainty.’

Greg Parmley, chief executive of Live, which represents music industry venues and the entertainment sector including companies, artists and backstage workers, said: ‘We welcome the news that the Government has started to deliver much-needed financial support, but with the live music sector teetering on the brink, the package falls short of the urgent cash injection businesses need to keep them afloat.

‘The amount of money pales in comparison to the mounting losses faced by the sector and the process will add layers of complexity at a time when businesses are already struggling with skeleton staff rotas and huge losses.’

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said on Twitter: ‘This is vital support that won’t just help protect our cherished theatres, museums & heritage sites, but the tens of thousands of people who work in them.

‘It’s important that we give as much support as we can to creative institutions and ensure that they are still there, standing strong to keep people employed, informed and entertained.’

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Julian Knight welcomed further support but called for clarity on the likelihood of an imminent lockdown.

He said: ‘More crucial still will be giving clarity for what the likely outlook for Covid restrictions is in the short and medium term.

‘You cannot simply start and stop a production or tour with a few days notice. They need to be planned and are dependent on a reasonable assessment of whether enough people can see it to be financially viable.

‘While additional money is welcome we must also give the entertainment sector the best possible chance of being up and running on its own. Without more clarity this will not be possible.’

Empty tables and chairs at a restaurant in London's West End last night as the hospitality sector faces another crisis

Empty tables and chairs at a restaurant in London’s West End last night as the hospitality sector faces another crisis

A near-deserted Tube train this morning - with London Mayor Sadiq Khan having already cancelled the New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square

A near-deserted Tube train this morning – with London Mayor Sadiq Khan having already cancelled the New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square  

Other businesses groups welcomes the package, however, though they warned that more might be needed if ministers tighten restrictions. 

‘We are pleased that the Chancellor heard our call for additional grant funding for hospitality and leisure businesses, which will provide some much-needed support in the face of this increasingly difficult trading period,’ said British Chambers of Commerce director general Shevaun Haviland.

‘Clarity and speed will be needed to ensure that these grants are paid out swiftly to help these hard-pressed firms weather the next few weeks.

‘Whilst these measures are a positive starting point, if restrictions persist or are tightened further, then we would need to see a wider support package, equal to the scale of any new measures, put in place.’

The package has promised another £1 billion of financial support for hospitality and leisure companies hit by the recent surge in Covid cases following the emergence of the Omicron strain of the virus.

Businesses will be able to get one-off grants worth up to £6,000 per premises that they run, the Treasury said on Tuesday.

Companies with fewer than 250 staff will also be allowed to claim back up to two weeks worth of statutory sick pay for each employee who gets the virus.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, said the packages would be particularly good for small businesses and will secure jobs in the short term.

‘This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated,’ she said.

She added: ‘There is now a real urgency in getting this funding to businesses so we urge local authorities to prioritise distribution of funds to make sure jobs and businesses are preserved through this difficult period.’

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chairman Mike Cherry said: ‘With the prospect of one million people sick or self-isolating by January, we encouraged the Chancellor to bring back the Covid statutory sick pay rebate – we’re pleased to see our recommendation taken forward today.

‘This move will reduce stress for small employers up and down the country, helping those who are struggling most with depleted cashflow.

‘It’s vital that small firms, once again up against a massively disrupted festive season, can reclaim the costs of supporting staff.’

Meanwhile, independent businesses have said the latest package of support will not be enough to help them through a difficult Christmas period, with lower footfall seen in cafes and shops as consumers try to avoid the new Omicron variant. 

Rachel Hutchinson, owner of The Rock Fairy Limited, a rock and roll-themed zero-waste shop and sustainable cafe based in Afflecks, Manchester, said her business was excluded from government support during previous lockdowns and that as ‘we started getting new variants, trade has steadily plummeted since September really’.

‘This month has been insane, it should be the busiest time of year. Today we opened at 10.30am and we’ve taken £6,’ she said.

She added that shoppers needed to feel safe, and many regular customers were avoiding the shop because they wanted to safeguard festive family plans but that her trade had fallen by 60%.

‘The six grand, it doesn’t cover what we’ve lost, so it’s certainly not going to cover what we stand to lose as well if they lock us down,’ she said.

Ms Hutchinson added that it would ‘just about’ help the company through Christmas.

Andrew Murray, director of independent brewers the Twisted Brewing Company in Westbury, Wiltshire, said: ‘I’m obviously disappointed and concerned about getting through the next two months because ordinarily we see trade has a downturn in January/February post-Christmas, and normally our Christmas trade would take us through and see us through that.

‘Unfortunately, we’ve seen our trade decimated this week and last week and we’re certainly not expecting anything next week, so the last few weeks of Christmas trade have been decimated by what the Government have said or not said really.’

He added that trade was 60% lower than expected takings in a normal December and that the firm was trying to ‘pivot to supplying people direct’ as they had during the lockdowns but that the changes in trade caused by Omicron had taken the business ‘unawares’ as they had not prepared to change their entire business model over ‘without any financial support from the Government’.

He said that the Treasury offer of support would be ‘very welcome’ but added that he doubted if this would include suppliers to the hospitality industry and that they would therefore face ‘a long cold winter ahead of us’ where suppliers would need to ‘throw ourselves at the mercy of our local authorities’.

Meletius Michael, founder of Meletius Coffee in Islington, London, said: ‘We’re moving our premises to just a roasters and not a coffee shop, because I just knew that there were going to be more restrictions and no help, so as soon as Plan B came we had already lost 50% of our turnover per day so it’s just not viable.’

He added that he would be closing the coffee shop on Friday and that footfall at his premises was down, although the surrounding area was busy.

‘All of a sudden people become more hesitant and they’re scared to come inside a shop’, he said, adding that the weekend before Plan B was announced the shop’s takings had been £600 from coffee and £300 the week afterwards.

While the overall business was doing well, he added that ‘partially the reason for the shop closing is because of restrictions’.

He said that the Treasury grant ‘doesn’t help us at all – £6,000 is nothing’.

‘In any business, 50% of your outgoings is your salary on payroll, so £6,000 is literally covering a very small dent – it needed to be furlough scheme at a minimum or a much higher grant’.

He added that at a minimum, £25,000 would be needed to cover Christmas and that the amount announced was ‘hilarious to us’.

It came as Boris Johnson tonight declared that Christmas can definitely go ahead ‘cautiously’ – but warned that there are no guarantees about the New Year. 

Amid rising anger that millions of people are being left in limbo, the PM completely ruled out any further curbs being introduced before December 25.

But he gave notice that the government is still monitoring the ‘finely balanced’ situation with Omicron ‘very carefully’ and is ‘ready to take action’ afterwards if necessary.   

The short-term clarity came after Nicola Sturgeon dramatically cancelled large-scale New Year celebrations in Scotland, reintroducing limits on households mixing, table service in hospitality and crowds at major events.

Meanwhile, another 90,629 Covid cases were recorded in 24 hours across the UK, along with 172 deaths. A further 15,363 infections with the Omicron variant have been confirmed, bringing the total to 60,508 – although the pace of spread looks potentially slower than initially feared.  

There has been heavy criticism of the claim from SAGE modellers that deaths could reach 6,000 a day in the worst scenario, and although daily cases have been rising sharply and topped 100,000 on December 15 they are still short of the levels feared. 

Leading statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter has also pointed out that around half of new Covid admissions in Omicron hotspot London only tested positive after arriving at hospital, possibly for a different ailment – although he stressed they would still add to pressure on the health service.

Official figures out today reveal that Covid was mentioned on 764 death certificates registered in England and Wales in the week to December 10 – 4 per cent down from the previous week and the lowest level since October. 

Mr Sunak finally unveiled the support for businesses after bars and restaurants were left deserted following increasingly grim warnings from Chris Whitty and other experts. The spending will make another dent in the public finances, after new figures revealed today that borrowing has risen above forecasts with the economy stalling. 

A survey by Ipsos MORI revealed a majority of Britons are now taking matters into their own hands to reduce their chances of catching coronavirus, with 58 per cent saying they have avoided public transport or plan to do so, and 57 per cent saying the same about going to pubs and restaurants, and social gatherings with friends and family. 

Local authorities will administer the £683million of hospitality and leisure grants, with 200,000 businesses set to benefit – although the criteria do not seem clear. Another £102million will go into discretionary funds, again controlled by town halls, and the emergency fund for cultural organisations will get a £30million boost. 

The devolved administrations will receive around £150million of funding through the Barnett formula as part of the support announced, with around £80million for the Scottish Government, £50million for the Welsh Government and £25million for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Mr Sunak gave a strong hint that the government will go further if more restrictions are needed, saying they cannot ‘rule anything out’.

‘People will be able to look at our track record over the last year or two and supporting people and businesses, especially in the hospitality industry throughout this crisis,’ he told journalists.

‘I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face. People can have confidence in that.

‘Where we are now we’ve responded, I think, generously today, the grants that we’ve outlined up to £6,000 are comparable to the grants that we provided for hospitality businesses when they were completely closed earlier this year. So, there’s a benchmark for you.

‘Also, it’s important to remember we have support already in place that lasts all the way to next spring.

‘So, for example, a reduced rate of VAT for the hospitality and tourism sectors, and this year they are benefiting from a 75 per cent discount on their business rates bill. Those types of things last all the way to next March to support the industry.’   

On another intense day of coronavirus drama:

  • Thousands more people could be released from isolation in time for Christmas as ministers prepare to cut the period from 10 days to seven days; 
  • Sir Jeremy Farrar, a former member of SAGE, has backed the position of waiting for another day to see updated evidence on Omicron;  
  • Mr Johnson’s personal rating have slumped again, with YouGov finding a net minus 48 think he is performing well – down from minus 35 last month. Just 22 per cent approve of the government with 60 per cent disapproving; 
  • The NHS has given a million Covid jabs in a single day for the first time, but still appears to be off the pace to hit the New Year target on boosters;
  • London’s New Year’s Eve celebration event in Trafalgar Square has been axed with Sadiq Khan urging people to watch TV instead.
The latest YouGov research has found just 22 per cent approve of the government, with 60 per cent disapproving

The latest YouGov research has found just 22 per cent approve of the government, with 60 per cent disapproving

A queue for a vaccination centre at Hampden Park in Glasgow today, with Nicola Sturgeon due to announce whether more restrictions will be brought in for Scotland after Christmas

A queue for a vaccination centre at Hampden Park in Glasgow today, with Nicola Sturgeon due to announce whether more restrictions will be brought in for Scotland after Christmas  

Sturgeon cancels New Year in Scotland over Omicron fears 

Nicola Sturgeon today cancelled large scale New Year celebrations in Scotland as she unveiled additional coronavirus restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Scottish First Minister said the advice for Christmas Day remains unchanged, with people allowed to meet with family but urged to be cautious.

But from December 26 for three weeks there will be attendance limits placed on live public events which will torpedo Hogmanay events.

The limits will not apply to private life events like weddings, but Ms Sturgeon said for indoor standing events the limit will be 100 people, for indoor seated events it will be 200 and for outdoor events 500 seated or standing.

This will mean that from Boxing Day football and other sporting matches in Scotland will effectively be spectator-free.

Ms Sturgeon also said that from December 27 the Scottish Government is advising people to return to limiting their social contacts ‘as much as you possibly can’ as she urged to nation to ‘please stay at home’.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UKHospitality industry body, said: ‘This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated.

‘It will help to secure jobs and business viability in the short term, particularly among small businesses in the sector, and we particularly welcome the boost to funds for the supply chain and event and business catering companies so badly affected by the reintroduction of work from home guidelines.

‘There is now a real urgency in getting this funding to businesses so we urge local authorities to prioritise distribution of funds to make sure jobs and businesses are preserved through this difficult period.’

The president of British Chambers of Commerce, Conservative peer Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, called for clarity on who will be eligible.

She told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: ‘We asked very much for grant support, so we are delighted that grant support has been given, but we don’t know yet the definition of eligible businesses and companies.’

She added: ‘I think it is a good start. Our concern is around the fact that we need business confidence and we have got uncertainty.

‘We need to know that we can stay open and continue to trade and consumers will return.’

But shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves complained that the government had been ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ to offering support.

‘The PM continues to be too distracted by revolt from Tory backbenchers to act in the public interest. Businesses and workers are crying out for clarity on what restrictions are down the road as many continue to be hit hard,’ she said. 

Senior Tories have hailed the decision to avoid immediate restrictions, while some scientists accused Mr Johnson of ‘caving in’ to sceptics in the Cabinet after ‘losing authority’ following a series of scandals.

In a statement released on video this evening, Mr Johnson said he wanted to give clarity for people on what to do at on December 25.

‘What this means is that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans but the situation remains finely balanced and I would urge everyone to exercise caution, to keep protecting yourselves and your loved ones, especially the vulnerable,’ he said.

‘And remember to keep following the guidance – wear a mask indoors when required to do so, keep fresh air circulating, and take a test before you visit elderly or vulnerable relatives.’ 

Covid cases have remained flat since last Friday when they hit a peak of more than 93,000. 

The slowing statistics may be behind Mr Johnson’s decision not to bring any tougher restrictions before Christmas.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that Mr Johnson had made the right decision as he slammed the modelling.

He said: ‘It’s not all doom and gloom, it does look like Omicron has stopped growing. The numbers over the last few days seem to have plateaued and maybe even be falling.

‘It’s a bit too soon to be absolutely sure about that, but if it is the case Boris Johnson will breathe a sigh of relief. We have to be a little bit careful because it’s only a few days.

‘And because we’re getting closer to Christmas there is nervousness that people may not come forward for testing because they don’t want to test positive and miss out on meeting relatives.

‘Omicron overtook the other variants around December 14 so most of any changes from there on would be down to Omicron. So if it was still doubling every two days that would have shown and we should have been at 200,000 cases yesterday and certainly more than 200,000 cases today.

UK records more than 100,000 daily cases for first time  

The UK recorded more than 100,000 Covid cases in a single day for the first time ever last week, new data shows after the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

A total of 102,297 people tested positive for the virus last Wednesday, according to backdated Government figures — marking the first time they have risen above triple digits officially since the start of the pandemic.

The figure looks at positive cases by ‘specimen date’, the day someone took the test, and is different from daily reported cases announced by Government every day, which looks at when someone received their result. 

It can take up to five days for the number of positive tests on any single day to be fully counted so more days where Covid cases have breached 100,000 may emerge in the coming days.    

But case numbers are still well below the projections of gloomy Government modelling which said there were up to 400,000 infections a day last week and that this could rise to 1million by the peak this winter.

Doubts about No10 scientific projections are believed to be the reason Boris Johnson has pumped the brakes on a Christmas lockdown, with ministers waiting for more concrete data on the variant. 

Last Friday, the Department of Health reported 93,045 new Covid cases. Cases have barely moved in four days and a record 1.5million Britons are being tested for the virus every day currently, which suggests the issue is not a lack of tests.  

‘But the fact it has been around 91,000 raises the point that it might actually have peaked. But it will probably take until at least Wednesday to get an idea of a day that is not affected by the weekend. But I am more optimistic than I was a few days ago.

There were 1.49million tests conducted today which is down from 1.56 million last Wednesday, but Professor Hunter said the ‘relatively small drop’ in testing would not hide a virus truly doubling every two days.

Latest hospital figures show there were 847 Covid admissions on December 17, up only 7 per cent on the previous week. There were a further 172 Covid deaths today, up 14 per cent. 

In epicentre London the wave also appears to be slowing after 20,491 cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, down slightly on yesterday’s tally of 22,750. It also marked the sixth day in a row cases have been above 20,000.

Hospitalisations in the capital are rising with another 245 registered today, up 56 per cent in a week, but MailOnline analysis showed up to a quarter of these are not primarily Covid.  

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg is understood to have urged the government during the Cabinet meeting yesterday to ‘trust people’ to respond to the alarm about the rapid spread of the new strain, rather than bringing back draconian laws.

Mr Johnson is said to have cautioned that explanation will not wash if the NHS is at serious risk of being underwhelmed, but eventually went with the majority view among his team. Critics said he had ‘caved in’, although No10 denied that he was overruled, stressing he did not make any firm proposal. 

Mr Johnson was boosted by Sir Jeremy Farrar, a former member of SAGE, backing the position of waiting for another day to see updated figures on hospitalisations. He told the Today programme that ‘each of us can do things today that will make the chance of further restrictions lighter’.

Commons sources said that there was ‘chaos’ coming out of Downing Street about whether they should expect a recall over the Christmas period. 

After government borrowing for November came in higher than predicted this morning, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay highlighted the ‘economic consequences’ of more restrictions. 

Mr Barclay told BBC Breakfast: ‘The Prime Minister has given a commitment that where there are additional regulations bought forward that Parliament would be recalled in order that Members of Parliament can scrutinise and debate those issues, but we are not at that stage.

‘We are looking closely at the data and we need to recognise there are economic consequences to further restrictions.’

With plans for the two-week ‘circuit breaker’ still said to be on the table, Mr Johnson last night warned he had to ‘reserve the possibility’ of further restrictions to control the spread of Omicron. 

However he admitted the data was not clear enough to justify action now.

The PM has promised to consult parliament on any new legal curbs and it is highly unlikely that MPs could be recalled in time to act before the Christmas break. 

A row erupted yesterday over modelling that had appeared to raise the threat of Christmas being ‘cancelled’ for a second year.

In forecasts leaked over the weekend, the SAGE committee cited modelling that without rapid action daily deaths could hit 6,000 in the worst case – and hospital admissions 10,000.

But with huge uncertainty over the severity of Omicron, ministers, MPs and experts rejected the ‘implausible’ predictions.

Tory former leader Iain Duncan Smith referred to SAGE modeller Graham Medley as ‘Graham Meddler’ during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, although it was not clear if it was a slip of the tongue. 

Mr Duncan Smith said the government should only make a decision based on a ‘wider range of information on the effect of lockdown’.  

‘We need to understand the effect of lockdown is dramatic across so many areas of people’s lives, which equates to the same as people going into hospital,’ he said.

Sir Jeremy, head of the Wellcome Trust, said people could take personal responsibility.

‘Omicron is spreading unbelievably fast. It is a phenomenal variant transmission,’ he said.

‘There is great uncertainty about what is it going to lead to in terms of pressure on the health system, people going to hospital, particularly people dying, but also what impact is it going to have on the broader society, staff absences, the ability to have functioning other services, so there is great uncertainty.

‘My personal view is that I think we can wait at the moment until there are more restrictions formally placed.’ 

Could the New Year see a ban on socialising indoors and the Rule of Six outside? 

Speculation is mounting that the government could impose a a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in England after Christmas. 

Ministers and officials have apparently pencilled in December 28 as a possible date to trigger the new curbs. 

The preparations come after SAGE suggested which would effectively re-impose ‘Step 2’ of Boris Johnson’s old lockdown exit roadmap for two weeks.   

It is unclear which parts of ‘Step 2’ could be included but a crackdown on indoor social contact is viewed as the most likely move. 

Below is a breakdown of the measures included in the old ‘Step 2’ which was in force in April this year.  

Ban on indoor socialising: People were not allowed to socialise indoors, except with members of the same household. The rule of six applied outdoors.

Curbs on hospitality: Bars, pubs and restaurants were closed indoors but could serve people outdoors where the rule of six applied.  

Shops: All retail remained open, including hairdressers, beauty and nail salons. 

Domestic travel: People were advised to minimise travel as much as possible. 

Education: Early years settings, schools and colleges were open for all students.     

Mr Barclay said there had been a ‘robust discussion’ at Cabinet about how to respond to the Omicron threat.

 ‘We are looking closely at the data, there is much we still don’t know about the severity of Omicron, how it leads to hospital admissions,’ he said.

‘We are looking particularly at the London data, there is a higher prevalence of Omicron particularly in London.’

Asked if he had been among members of the Cabinet calling for more data, Mr Barclay said: ‘I think it is right that the Cabinet has a full and robust discussion.

‘That is what people would expect. It is right that we look at the balance between protecting lives and livelihoods.’

Covid behind just one in 16 deaths in England and Wales, latest figures show

Covid was behind just one in 16 deaths in England and Wales in the two weeks after Omicron first hit Britain as Covid fatalities hit a two-month low, official figures revealed today.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows just 764 of the nearly 12,000 fatalities recorded in the two nations were linked with the virus in the seven days up to December 10.

The weekly Covid fatalities is the lowest figure recorded in two months, since 713 were registered in the week to October 15.

These deaths — which include any fatality where the virus was mentioned on the certificate — were recorded in the two weeks after the first Omicron infections were identified in the UK.

Covid deaths are the biggest lagging indicator of trends in infection rates, because it takes three to four weeks for an infected person to die from the virus.

How deadly the surge in Omicron cases turns out to be remains to be seen, with uncertainties about how severe it is or how well vaccines protect against serious outcomes.

Those key unknowns combined with rising cases have put festive plans into doubt, despite the Prime Minister so far holding off imposing extra Covid curbs before Christmas.

 

However, Mr Barclay told LBC he had downsized the number of family members at his own Christmas celebrations this year, with only his in-laws attending.

He disclosed that Mr Sunak will give more details of support for businesses later. 

‘The Chancellor was talking to industry leaders about this very issue last night. We will say more about this later today,’ he said.

‘We recognise obviously we are keen to keep businesses open and businesses should continue to plan for the bookings they have.

‘We absolutely recognise that through Plan B and the behaviour change there has been an impact on those bookings.’ 

Several ministers – including Mr Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – made clear they were unwilling to back further restrictions until there was better information on the impact of Omicron.

Mr Sunak is understood to have resisted measures that could cost the economy billions ‘off the back of data that is patchy’. The most vocal supporters of a strong response are believed to have been Communities Secretary Michael Gove and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

Afterwards Mr Johnson insisted the Government was monitoring the data ‘hour by hour’ and that the arguments for taking action were ‘very, very finely balanced’.

But he stressed there are still ‘uncertainties’ around the severity of the new strain, as well as the rate of hospital admissions associated with it and its impact on vaccines.

He added: ‘Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS. We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.’

Ministers were briefed at the virtual Cabinet meeting by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.

Ms Truss apparently demanded ministers were given ‘really thorough data’ before approving curbs, and insisted there must be ‘incontrovertible evidence that we need more restrictions’.

Other ministers voicing similar concerns included Mr Rees-Mogg, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack.

Ms Sturgeon today cancelled large scale New Year celebrations in Scotland as she unveiled additional coronavirus restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Scottish First Minister said the advice for Christmas Day remains unchanged, with people allowed to meet with family but urged to be cautious.

But from December 26 for three weeks there will be attendance limits placed on live public events which will torpedo Hogmanay events.

The limits will not apply to private life events like weddings, but Ms Sturgeon said for indoor standing events the limit will be 100 people, for indoor seated events it will be 200 and for outdoor events 500 seated or standing.

This will mean that from Boxing Day football and other sporting matches in Scotland will effectively be spectator-free.

Ms Sturgeon also said that from December 27 the Scottish Government is advising people to return to limiting their social contacts ‘as much as you possibly can’ as she urged to nation to ‘please stay at home’.

Ms Sturgeon appeared to fire a shot at the Prime Minister as she said ‘we know from experience that if we wait until the data tells us conclusively that we have a problem… it will already be too late to act to avoid that problem’. 

A very quiet road in London's West End last night as people stay at home with just days to go until Christmas

A very quiet road in London’s West End last night as people stay at home with just days to go until Christmas

Government borrowing came in above expectations at £17.4billion – only £4.9billion below last year and the second highest on record

Graph shows London's daily Covid cases by date reported. It reveals they initially shot up when Omicron first emerged, but may now be stabalising despite predictions that infections are doubling every two to three days

Graph shows London’s daily Covid cases by date reported. It reveals they initially shot up when Omicron first emerged, but may now be stabalising despite predictions that infections are doubling every two to three days

The above graph shows Covid cases recorded in the UK by specimen date, which is the date that a test was carried out. It reveals 100,000 people who took swabs last Wednesday tested positive for the virus

The above graph shows Covid cases recorded in the UK by specimen date, which is the date that a test was carried out. It reveals 100,000 people who took swabs last Wednesday tested positive for the virus

Covid isolation could be cut to seven days 

Ministers are set to announce a major shake-up of Covid rules by slashing the number of self-isolation days to seven, in a bid to stop staff shortages grinding the country to a halt this Christmas.

Government experts are reportedly set to agree new advice which will see the self-isolation period cut by three days – bring it down from 10 days to seven.

However those self-isolating will need to have negative lateral flow tests on day six and seven in order to be eligible for early release.

It comes after epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson earlier this week backed the change, saying it would ‘not reduce the effectiveness of the measures that much’ if coupled with testing.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has also reportedly been pushing hard for the reduction. An announcement is expected ‘imminently’.

A Cabinet source said: ‘There is more data coming on Wednesday, so that should make hopefully the picture a bit clearer and decisions easier to make.’  

Tory former chief whip Mark Harper said that ‘not telling the public what’s going on is unacceptable’ as he said ‘we can do so much better than this’. 

SAGE social behaviour expert Stephen Reicher lashed out at Mr Johnson today, saying he had ‘caved in’ to lockdown-sceptic ministers and Tory MPs.

‘The arguments are very very finely balanced says ‘do nothing’ Johnson. On the one hand you have a scientific consensus that current measures are inadequate and that action is needed now. You have the NHS crying out in alarm. You have businesses crying out for support,’ Prof Reicher said. 

‘On the other hand you have the right of the Tory Party which threatens rebellion. And the Prime Minister, who has lost political authority over his own party, just as he has lost moral authority over the country, caves in to the latter That’s not balanced It’s completely unhinged.’ 

Mr Johnson was under pressure from his SAGE experts to roll out extra curbs after they delivered dire warnings about what will happen if the PM fails to act urgently. 

But other experts today slammed as ‘fictitious’ projections of 6,000 daily Covid deaths and 10,000 hospitalisations this winter in a worst-case scenario. 

Coronavirus cases have also been around the 90,000 mark for four days now, after experts predicted they would double every two days. 

It has also emerged that ministers are considering slashing isolation for those with Covid from 10 days to seven days due to fears Omicron will cripple the economy.   

According to Government modelling, up to 2million people could be catching the ultra-transmissible variant per day during the peak this winter.

There are growing fears it could push the country into a de facto lockdown with so many isolating with mild illness, even if hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

Sources say the change in policy is ‘being looked at’ and Health Secretary Sajid Javid is thought to be eager to shorten the isolation timeframe as hospitals and businesses struggle due to absent workers.

The lack of a final decision by Mr Johnson on extra curbs means it now seems unlikely that further restrictions will be rolled out before Christmas but there are mounting fears of a crackdown immediately after December 25. 

The PM has promised that MPs will get a vote on any additional rules but Parliament is now in recess and recalling the House of Commons, holding a debate and then voting would take an estimated 48 hours. 

Announcing curbs any later than today would therefore run the risk of people being told to follow new rules after they have already travelled to see family for Christmas. 

The Times reported that Mr Johnson and the Cabinet delayed a decision because they were not yet convinced the latest Omicron data justified announcing new restrictions. 

Can we afford another lockdown? Borrowing rises as economy stalls 

The grim state of the public finances was laid bare today as the Covid surge and Omicron variant hammers the economy.

Government borrowing came in above expectations at £17.4billion – only £4.9billion below last year and the second highest on record.

Meanwhile, the country’s debt pile had reached £2.32trillion by the end of the month – equivalent to 96.1 per cent of GDP, the worst ratio since 1963.

The bleak picture comes amid mounting fears that the resurgence of the virus has derailed the recovery. 

However, the newspaper said the Government could opt to impose a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown in England after Christmas, potentially starting on December 28. 

It was reported on Saturday that Whitehall officials had drawn up regulations which would effectively re-impose ‘Step 2’ of the PM’s lockdown exit roadmap for two weeks.  

That would mean a ban on indoor socialising and a return of the rule of six for outdoor gatherings. Bars, pubs and restaurants would be banned from serving people indoors. 

The delay in Mr Johnson’s decision on extra curbs prompted a split within the Cabinet, with Sajid Javid warning ministers that no decision was a decision in itself. The Health Secretary asked experts to ‘kick the tyres’ of government modelling but they were unable to reassure him that the variant is less severe, reports the Times.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted that the public should be trusted to make their own decisions as to how best to protect themselves and the family, rather than imposing more restrictions. He also criticised SAGE modelling while saying that there was not enough evidence to suggests new Covid measures were necessary. 

The Prime Minister convened the meeting of his top team as he faced a growing Cabinet revolt over potential further Covid rules. 

The PM had been presented with three options to tackle the variant amid surging case numbers, with the lowest level of intervention consisting of advice to limit household mixing indoors, according to The Telegraph.

The second level would see mandatory restrictions on household mixing, the return of social distancing and an 8pm curfew for pubs and restaurants while the third and toughest level would see a return to something close to a full lockdown. 

Mr Johnson is now considering his next move, knowing that any decision to tighten Covid rules will spark a furious Tory backlash. 

Downing Street at lunchtime refused to be drawn on the proposals which are reportedly under consideration, with the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman telling reporters: ‘At this point we are still monitoring the data and keeping a very close eye on it… we would update if any decisions are taken.’

Boris Johnson has been presented with three options to slow the spread of the Omicron variant with the PM reportedly clearing his diary today for crunch meetings with scientists and advisers

Boris Johnson has been presented with three options to slow the spread of the Omicron variant with the PM reportedly clearing his diary today for crunch meetings with scientists and advisers

Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, today refused to rule out more curbs being introduced before Christmas

Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, today refused to rule out more curbs being introduced before Christmas

Experts slam SAGE’s ‘fictitious’ doomsday scenario

Modelling by SAGE was today slammed as ‘fictitious’ after projecting 6,000 daily Covid deaths and 10,000 hospitalisations this winter in a worst-case scenario. 

In advice to ministers published this weekend, the Government’s scientific advisers said there could be astronomical casualty numbers without more ‘stringent measures’. 

SAGE’s modelling team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found there could be 10,400 hospitalisations in England per day at the peak of the outbreak in February in a worst-case scenario.

They assumed that Omicron will continue to grow exponentially even under Plan B curbs, two jabs offer just 50 per cent protection against severe disease from the mutant strain and boosters just 80 per cent. 

The 6,000 deaths a day figure was calculated by Warwick University scientists and made similarly pessimistic assumptions about vaccine effectiveness, as well as that current curbs reduce transmission by just 20 per cent . 

If both of these predictions were to come true, it would mean that 60 per cent of people who get admitted for Covid in the coming months will die.

By comparison, at the peak last January there were on average 4,000 admissions a day and 1,300 deaths giving a hospital-fatality rate of 32.5 per cent. Warwick said it factored in ‘extreme pressure’ put on the NHS by Omicron. 

The worst-case scenarios were presented despite 48.8 per cent of over-12s being boosted, 81 per cent being double-jabbed, and reports from South Africa that the mutant strain is milder.  

Crucially, the modellers did not look at any scenario in which Omicron causes milder disease than Delta or if people start to change their behaviour in the coming weeks in response to the variant.  

SAGE’s chief modeller Professor Graham Medley from LSHTM revealed this weekend that the committee does not consider optimistic scenarios because ‘that doesn’t get decisions made’. 

An ex-Government scientist who wished to remain anonymous today told MailOnline that the numbers are ‘fictitious’, adding: ‘Models have to simplify the world to predict the future, but clearly that’s an absurd futureThey said the doomsday scenarios were comparable to ‘science fiction’, adding: ‘But we don’t tend to question it because we worship numbers’.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University and a GP, said this morning that ‘we are in deep, deep trouble of potentially talking ourselves into annual lockdowns’ as he argued the question should be ‘when are we going to treat people like adults?’. 

But Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of government advisory body the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), said ‘we need to reduce our contacts’.

Asked about Christmas, he said: ‘The safest thing is not to meet up before Christmas. If you want a good Christmas dinner, I would say be very careful about meeting up before Christmas.’ 

At least 10 Cabinet ministers are said to be resisting further curbs because they have concerns about the accuracy of expert modelling on the spread of Omicron. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is one of the ministers to have expressed concerns about the projected numbers, according to The Times, after SAGE warned there could be 3,000 patients a day in need of hospital treatment without urgent action. 

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet on a call on Saturday that curbs should be rolled out as soon as possible but one third of senior ministers are said to be against the move.  

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab this morning refused to rule out additional restrictions before Christmas Day as he said he could not make ‘hard, fast guarantees’. He said the Government is aiming to take ‘informed decisions and of course we want to take them earlier rather than later’. 

Tory MPs last night said any attempt to toughen rules before Christmas will provoke letters seeking to oust Mr Johnson as party leader.  

The warnings came just 24 hours after Lord Frost, up to now a close ally of Mr Johnson, dramatically quit as Brexit Minister slating ‘coercive’ Covid curbs and high taxes.  

Lord Frost walked out with a parting shot at the ‘direction of travel’ and saying he had hoped the end of lockdown would be ‘irreversible’. His departure was described as a ‘watershed moment’ in what had been an extremely damaging week for Mr Johnson.

Today’s coronavirus statistics showed there had been a further 91,743 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK as of 9am this morning. The Government said a further 44 people had died. 

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said there had been 8,044 additional confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, bringing the total confirmed cases of the variant in the UK to 45,145.   

Families are desperate to spend Christmas together after last year’s Covid lockdown rules meant millions were forced to be apart or severely scale back their celebrations.

It is understood Mr Johnson is resisting calls for restrictions ahead of December 25, but there are mounting fears they will be imposed after that, spoiling New Year plans for millions. 

Sajid Javid yesterday repeatedly declined to rule out imposing tough restrictions before Christmas as he warned there are ‘no guarantees’ Christmas Day will go ahead without a lockdown. 

The Health Secretary acknowledged that data about the Omicron variant remained incomplete – but suggested it might be necessary to make decisions before a full picture is available.  

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet during a call on Saturday that hospital admissions in England could reach 3,000 a day unless further curbs are introduced

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet during a call on Saturday that hospital admissions in England could reach 3,000 a day unless further curbs are introduced

In other coronavirus developments:  

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to 'hold firm' against more restrictions and not make any 'knee-jerk restrictions'

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said there was 'no evidence' for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas

Mark Harper (left), chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to ‘hold firm’ against more restrictions and not make any ‘knee-jerk restrictions’. Meanwhile former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith (right) said there was ‘no evidence’ for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas

 

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NHS England’s boss told Sajid Javid the £90million a month deal to rope in private hospitals if Covid spiralled out of control could waste taxpayer money, it emerged today.

The three-month contract sees private healthcare staff and facilities put on standby to help, should Omicron trigger unsustainable levels of hospital admissions or staff absences.

In a letter to the Health Secretary days before the contract was announced publicly, Amanda Pritchard warned it might not be ‘value for money’.

She admitted that the independent sector could play a role in tackling any crisis, and that they would be called on to ‘ensure the most urgent care continues’. 

But Ms Pritchard told Mr Javid that it was estimated only half of the 5,600 extra beds made available across the country would be able to be used because of the staffing issues. 

Health chiefs did not disclose the sum the private sector would be paid when details were first confirmed on Monday. 

But the letter, which was published ahead of an MP committee today, revealed that the 10 private providers will share a pot of between £75-90million a month for three months. 

The deal could be worth in the region of £175million a month if the private sector is called upon.

Private sector bosses — who have previously criticised officials for failing to take up their offers to help tackle the record backlog of patients waiting for routine care — asked the NHS to commit to fixed minimum payments in the event they had to pivot to helping a strained health service.  

Amanda Pritchard (pictured), chief executive of the health service in England, warned Sajid Javid his £90million per month deal with the private sector could waste taxpayer money, it emerged today

Sajid Javid

Amanda Pritchard (left), chief executive of the health service in England, warned Sajid Javid (right) his £90million per month deal with the private sector could waste taxpayer money, it emerged today

Quizzed over Ms Pritchard's letter by MPs today, the chief civil servant at he Department of Health Sir Chris Godfrey claimed it was not the NHS chief's job to look into the wider impacts on society the move would have

Quizzed over Ms Pritchard’s letter by MPs today, the chief civil servant at he Department of Health Sir Chris Godfrey claimed it was not the NHS chief’s job to look into the wider impacts on society the move would have

Sajid Javid tells NHS to send cancer patients to private hospitals to stop further treatment delays 

The NHS has been told to send cancer patients to private hospitals to prevent their treatment being delayed further by the pandemic.

The Health Secretary Sajid Javid reportedly told the NHS at the weekend that it needed to ‘urgently secure’ private hospital beds and equipment to increase capacity amid a rising number of trusts experiencing debilitating staff shortages due to Covid cases.

It is hoped that these plans will avoid future restrictions being imposed in England, The Daily Telegraph reported.

Additional private beds will be paid for by the NHS and include the provision of some forms of cancer surgery and other care not normally provided by the private sector under existing arrangements.

Some beds will also be made available in case Covid patients overwhelm NHS trusts leaving them unable to provide urgent care.

‘We are going to do everything we can to avoid more restrictions,’ a Whitehall source told the paper.

‘Our lines of defence through vaccines, testing and antivirals are crucial and holding up but we are also boosting NHS capacity as much as we can.

‘Sajid wants the NHS to make use of the independent sector if needed. The aim is to ensure as much capacity as possible is available to help the NHS get through the Omicron wave.’

Mr Javid signed off on the deal — which saw NHS officials negotiate directly with the independent sector.

The Health Secretary insisted it would provide an ‘additional safeguard that ensures people can continue to get the care they need’.

It allows NHS trusts in England to send a wide range of patients, including those who need some forms of cancer surgery, to nearby private wards if they cannot provide the care.

The details of the agreement were made public today by the Public Accounts Committee, which released a copy of the letter Ms Pritchard had sent. 

In it, she wrote: ‘There is a need to put in place the necessary commercial arrangements immediately, particularly in order to secure surge capacity. 

‘The independent sector, with their acute hospital sites, good facilities, and access to a limited pool of staff could help meet the pressures facing the NHS.’

But she added: ‘The independent sector is not typically used for medical bed capacity and its staffing model does not easily support significant 7/7 staffed bed capacity. 

‘It is therefore not possible to be sure what additional effective medical bed capacity would be available and we assume that core NHS staff will be fully stretched at this point to staff core acute sites and any surge capacity on those sites.’

Ms Pritchard warned that there were ‘elements of this proposal which carry risks on the basis of value for money.’ 

She highlighted how it was her role as the boss of NHS to look into how much deals with private firms would be costing the health service.

As well as paying the £75-90m standby fee, health chiefs have agreed to cover any extra costs private providers incur if their surge capacity is needed. 

Highlighting the letter at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, MP Meg Hillier said: ‘[This] is a very expensive proposal.

‘It is proposing in order for the independent private sector providers to be ready to stand up at a moment’s notice – seven days – that the cost would be between £75-£90m/month based on current information.’

Ms Hillier, chair of the Committee, asked: ‘Are you content with this very large expense taxpayers being exposed to?’

Sir Chris Wormald, permanent Secretary to the Department of Health and Social Care, said that he was ‘content the decisions had been made properly’.

Ms Hillier added: ‘There is a very big liability there for the taxpayer. 

‘Nightingale hospitals were stood down and a not all of the private sector capacity was used last time.

‘Why is it such an emergency now? Surely this sort of planning could have happened ahead of time.’ 

Sir Chris added: ‘Amanda Pritchard has considered the strictures of managing public money and concluded that in her judgement this investment does not meet [those].

‘[Mr Javid] has concluded that… the wider public interest beyond the question of managing public money is best served by it happening. 

‘The wider reason he has done that is because, as we know, the consequences of Covid go far beyond the NHS.

‘And when you are in a position that the NHS is at risk from Covid, the consequences for the wider economy, society and all the wider implications the committee is well aware of — Amanda Pritchard is not in a position to take account of.’

He added: ‘One of the reason we protect NHS services is because the alternatives are restrictions on society. 

‘The secretary state is taking a wider view of society.’

NHS bosses are confident they will cope with the current Omicron-fuelled pressures, with one official insisting the ‘front line will hold’.

Official data shows hospitalisations are slowing across the country — with 2,000 being admitted on average each day in England, half of last January’s peak.

Rates are already falling in London, which was first region to be hit by Omicron.

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More NHS cancer patients will be treated in private hospitals under a deal struck with the sector to ‘safeguard’ against the staff absence crisis and rising Covid admissions. 

The deal allows NHS trusts in England to send a wide range of patients, including those who need some forms of cancer surgery, to nearby private wards if they cannot provide the care. 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who signed off on the three-month deal, said it would ‘ensure people can continue to get the care they need’ as the health service wrestles with a winter crisis.

Neither the cost of the agreement, nor the number of beds hired, has been disclosed, but the Government paid £400million a month for 8,000 private beds during the first wave of the pandemic. The extra capacity comes as NHS hospitals were told to identify areas such as gyms and community centres that can be used to create ‘super-surge’ wards in case they are overwhelmed.

But NHS bosses are confident that they will cope with the current Omicron-fuelled pressures, with one top official today insisting the ‘front line will hold’ even with the health service on ‘war footing’. 

Official data shows hospitalisations are slowing across the country — with 2,000 being admitted on average each day in England, half of last January’s peak — and are already falling in London, which was first region to be hit by Omicron. 

The number of patients on ventilators has also stayed flat, and overall occupancy levels are no higher than in the winters before the pandemic struck. But cabinet minister Michael Gove today accepted the NHS would be under pressure for the ‘next two or three weeks’.

NHS waiting lists have surged to a record high of 6million after whole wards were turned over to fighting the virus, with some patients now waiting more than two years for care. MPs warned last week that the list could double in three years without urgent action to get more doctors and nurses on wards. 

Hospitalisations due to Covid fell in England yesterday, and are also dropping in the capital which was first to be hit by the variant in a promising sign for the rest of the nation

Health Secretary Sajid Javid (left) said the deal would provide 'safeguarding' to the NHS

But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents hospital trusts, said they could get through the Omicron crisis without further restrictions

Health Secretary Sajid Javid (left) said the deal would provide ‘safeguarding’ to the NHS. But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents hospital trusts, said they could get through the Omicron crisis without further restrictions

A total of 25 out of 137 NHS Trusts in England have declared critical incidents — or 17.5 per cent. Above are the trusts that have publicly announced they have declared these incidents to help them manage winter pressures

A total of 25 out of 137 NHS Trusts in England have declared critical incidents — or 17.5 per cent. Above are the trusts that have publicly announced they have declared these incidents to help them manage winter pressures

Data released by NHS England shows a record 5.98million people were waiting for routine surgery in October, up from 5.83million the month before. When the pandemic hit last March, 4.2million people were in the queue for hospital treatment

Data released by NHS England shows a record 5.98million people were waiting for routine surgery in October, up from 5.83million the month before. When the pandemic hit last March, 4.2million people were in the queue for hospital treatment

The new agreement will run until the end of March 2022 and includes the following private providers: Practice Plus Group, Spire Healthcare, Nuffield Health, Circle Health Group, Ramsay Health Care UK, Healthcare Management Trust, One Healthcare, Horder Healthcare, Aspen Healthcare and KIMS Hospital. 

Announcing the deal, Mr Javid said: ‘NHS staff continue to go above and beyond to ensure people get the treatment they need this winter and our support for the NHS through this challenging period remains at full throttle.

‘This agreement demonstrates the collaboration across our health care services to create an additional safeguard that ensures people can continue to get the care they need from our world-leading NHS, whenever they need it.

‘I encourage everyone to keep doing their bit to look after themselves and their loved ones and, most importantly, for all those eligible, to get boosted now.’

Boris Johnson ‘will announce new Living With Covid plan by March’ 

Education minister Nadhim Zahawi says Britain can lead the world in learning to ‘live with’ Covid as infections dropped again for the fourth day in a row amid renewed calls to get the country back to normal.

The encouraging signs that Omicron is not as severe as previous strains are boosting hopes that isolation will be cut to five days to prevent businesses, hospitals and schools being so hard hit by staff absences, in a move backed by Rishi Sunak.

Speaking on Sky News, Zahawi said: ‘I hope we will be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic.’

Boris Johnson is understood to be currently drawing up plans for a ‘living with Covid’ strategy in a bid to avoid any long-term restrictions which will be rolled out by March.

He is expected to scale back the testing regime with free lateral flow tests withdrawn for non-high risk situations and a reduction in isolation periods, according to The i.

Department of Health bosses reported a further 141,472 cases on Sunday, a 6.7 per cent decrease from the 151,663 cases that were reported the previous Sunday.

However the number of people dying with the virus saw a 32.9 per cent rise, with 97 deaths reported compared to 73 on January 2.

A government source told The Telegraph that 60 per cent of the Cabinet support cutting the isolation period to five days, but said the move will still need to be approved by scientists.

The Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN) welcomed the deal, with its chief executive David Hare saying it will help to ‘bolster planned NHS care’ over the winter months. It previously complained that the NHS had failed to utilise the private sector’s capacity during previous waves. 

He added: ‘The arrangements will also provide the NHS with additional targeted support in the event that local NHS pressures are deemed as unsustainable.’

NHS England chief operating officer and Covid incident director Sir David Sloman said the new deal ‘means as many people as possible can continue to get the care they need’.

Private hospitals were also called in to help the NHS amid the first wave of the pandemic, when hospitals were forced to cancel tens of thousands of non-urgent operations. 

But a report by the Health Service Journal found about two-thirds of the block-purchased capacity went unused by the NHS between June and the end of September 2020. 

At the time, the NHS was paying around £400million a month for the extra capacity, with the final bill thought to be in the region of £1.5billion. 

Ministers then signed an up to £10billion deal to help trusts deliver ‘higher levels of activity’ with the sector, but they were also accused of under-utilising the capacity.  

It came as a senior NHS boss predicted today that the health service would hold out against surging pressure from the Omicron variant without the need for further restrictions.

But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Provers, still warned the health service was going to be stretched ‘perilously thin’ in some places but that ‘[hospital] trusts can help each other out’.

Government figures show there are currently 16,399 Covid patients in hospitals across England, less than half the peak of more than 34,000 last winter. But up to 40 per cent aren’t primarily being treated for the virus.

And there are early signs admissions are already slowing down in London, which was first to be hit by the variant, in a promising sign the rest of the country will soon follow suit.

Latest figures show the capital recorded 3,867 admissions yesterday, barely a change from the 3,744 registered a week ago. For comparison, in late December hospitalisations were surging by 15 per cent a day. 

To ease demands experts are urging ministers to slash self-isolation to five days, in line with the US and France, which would see nurses and doctors return to wards earlier.

Current rules require everyone who tests positive for Covid to quarantine for seven days if they test negative on days six and seven, or the full ten days. 

Mr Gove warned today that the NHS was likely to be under real pressure for the ‘next two or three weeks, perhaps longer’.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Our first responsibility at the moment must be to support the NHS, but you quite rightly legitimately ask if we get through — and at the moment I hope and pray that we will get through this difficult period — then there will be better times ahead.’

‘And I think one of the things that we do need to think about is how we live with Covid, how we live with this particular type of coronavirus. There are other coronaviruses which are endemic and with which we live, viruses tend to develop in a way whereby they become less harmful but more widespread.

‘So, guided by the science, we can look to the progressive lifting of restrictions, and I think for all of us the sooner the better. But we’ve got to keep the NHS safe.’

It comes as Education minister Nadhim Zahawi says Britain can lead the world in learning to ‘live with’ Covid as infections dropped again for the fourth day in a row amid renewed calls to get the country back to normal.

The encouraging signs that Omicron is not as severe as previous strains are boosting hopes that isolation will be cut to five days to prevent businesses, hospitals and schools being so hard hit by staff absences, in a move backed by Rishi Sunak.

Speaking on Sky News, Zahawi said: ‘I hope we will be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic.’

Boris Johnson is understood to be currently drawing up plans for a ‘living with Covid’ strategy in a bid to avoid any long-term restrictions which will be rolled out by March.

He is expected to scale back the testing regime with free lateral flow tests withdrawn for non-high risk situations and a reduction in isolation periods, according to The i.

Department of Health bosses reported a further 141,472 cases on Sunday, a 6.7 per cent decrease from the 151,663 cases that were reported the previous Sunday.

However the number of people dying with the virus saw a 32.9 per cent rise, with 97 deaths reported compared to 73 on January 2.

A government source told The Telegraph that 60 per cent of the Cabinet support cutting the isolation period to five days, but said the move will still need to be approved by scientists.

Among the backers are Mr Sunak and ministers from the main economic ministries who want to reduce work absences and support business.

Mr Zahawi, the former vaccines minister, became the first minister to publicly support a reduced isolation period, saying it would help employers.

He said: ‘I would obviously always defer to the scientific advice on this. It would certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others.’

He said the UK Health Security Agency was reviewing the length of the isolation period and the government was doing all it could to make sure the stretched health service could operate during what he called ‘a rocky few weeks’.

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