Expectations are mounting of a month-long second national lockdown to save Christmas, following the publication of chilling scientific papers predicting that coronavirus deaths this winter could outstrip the 85,000 envisaged in the government’s “worst case scenario”.
Boris Johnson is understood to have held meetings with senior cabinet ministers Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock to consider the best way forward, amid growing concern that his regional three-tier strategy for England is not working.
The Times and Daily Mail reported that the prime minister will hold a press conference on Monday to announce a new national shutdown beginning as early as Wednesday and last until 1 December.
It is understood that measures under consideration include the closure of everything but essential shops and educational settings, including nurseries, schools and universities.
A senior member of the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the director of the Wellcome Trust Sir Jeremy Farrar, said: “Sadly, there is now no easy path ahead, just the least bad option. To bring Covid-19 under control, we have to act now. The virus will not wait for us.”
There was no confirmation of the plan from Downing Street, and it is understood that no final decisions have yet been made. Chancellor Mr Sunak has warned of the terrible impact a return to stringent restrictions on social and business lactivities would have on the economy.
As late as Friday morning, foreign secretary Dominic Raab was still insisting that the three-tier strategy was the best approach.
As infection rates in the second wave of coronavirus have surged, Mr Johnson has come under increasing pressure from scientific advisers and politicians to impose a fresh lockdown.
He rejected a Sage plan for a two-week “circuit breaker” in September or October - possibly coinciding with the school half-term. Both Labour and Liberal Democrats have backed a time-limited circuit break, while tough restrictions have been imposed across Wales and much of Scotland.
Earlier this week, public health expert Dr Gabrial Scally of the University of Bristol told The Independent that a two or three week shutdown now would give Mr Johnson the option of permitting an “amnesty” of two or three days for families to gather for Christmas.
Sir Jeremy said today that it was now urgent to get the crucial reproduction rate of the virus - known as R - below the threshold of one at which it begins spreading exponentially.
“The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid,” he said.
“The second-best time is now. The sooner we get on top of the disease, reduce transmission, get R below one, the sooner we can get our society back to normal & the economy back on track.
“Nobody 'wants' a lockdown, myself very much included. Full and generous support for people and businesses is a crucial part of making it work.
“But we have quickly breached the reasonable worst-case scenario, we are further ahead in this phase of the epidemic than many have assumed… We have to act now.”
Mr Johnson has invited the leaders of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to a summit to agree a common approach to Christmas, potentially bringing together rules which currently vary widely between the four nations of the UK.
Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford revealed he had received a letter from the PM at the start of this week, but no date for the meeting had been finalised.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “We are in deeply serious situation with Coronavirus spreading with ferocity.
“Boris Johnson should have used the school half term for a time limited circuit break to push infections down, fix Test & Trace and save lives.
“It’s urgent Boris Johnson outlines the action he will now take to bring the virus under control and deliver on his promise to get R below 1 quickly.”