December 4, 2022

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Whitty and Vallance’s warning could not be clearer – now the PM must persuade us to heed it | UK News

Pitch-rolling, preparing the ground, delivering hard truths: the government’s chief scientific advisors were dispatched today with one intention. 

They wanted to convince us all that the imminent rollbacks of our freedom are, while unwelcome, necessary and we all must play our part.

Using seven data slides, a 20-minute presentation and no questions from journalists, the government’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance were not there to debate what measures might be needed but rather to make the case for what is to come.

Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance were dispatched to deliver a stark warning to the nation

Their message: do nothing and the number of COVID-19 cases could hit 49,000 a day by mid-October, with 200 deaths a day by mid-November.

Sir Patrick said it required “speed” and “action” to bring the numbers down.

“There is a potential for this to move really fast,” he said.

Meanwhile, Professor Whitty warned: “We have, in a bad sense, literally turned a corner.”

The scientific case is quickly followed by the political manoeuvring, as the prime minister weighs up not just which measures to implement but how to take a fatigued public, restive party and all four nations with him.

Boris Johnson had direct conversations with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday in the hope that all parts of the UK might chart the same course as we try to navigate the “inevitable” second wave of this disease.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has already said she will announce new emergency measures in the next two days – but is willing to delay her own decisions on what exactly would be required ahead of her conversations with the prime minister.

Northern Ireland leader Arlene Foster was not prepared to wait that long as she banned household mixing from Tuesday night.

And what about the public mood?

The lockdown fatigue that scientists warned about in the spring now appears to be kicking in at the very moment that ministers and experts are asking us all to follow the rules.

The government’s Scientific and Advisory Group (SAGE) reported last week that just one in five reporting symptoms in England fully self-isolated at home for the required two weeks at the end of August.

The government is trying to respond with tougher sanctions, but knows in reality it needs people to pull together and voluntarily comply as they did back in the spring at the height of lockdown.

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But as this grinds on, that sense of collective endeavour is under strain with different groups in society holding different priorities and facing different pressures.

Professor Whitty tried to make the case that controlling the virus is “not someone else’s problem, this is all of our problem”.

He reminded younger people who might not be hit as hard by COVID that the virus can move up the chain to the elderly and more vulnerable if left unchecked.

But there are many in Mr Johnson’s own party who are sceptical, pointing out that there is not one settled scientific view on how to manage the virus.

They cite Carl Heneghan, an Oxford University professor, who told Sky News a strict national lockdown now could be ineffective and result in a resurgence later in the winter.

His view is any partial lockdown – the so-called “circuit break” – should be delayed to Christmas.

MPs also point to Sweden, which never fully locked down at all and is now seeing falling cases rather than a resurgence of the virus.

Uncomfortable with the policies, they are increasingly fuming about the heavy handedness of Number 10 as is beginning to mobilise against the prime minister.

Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful 1922 backbench select committee, is leading the rebellion against what he and many colleagues see as “too much executive power”.

He is demanding proper parliamentary oversight when it comes to any new restrictions and is preparing to table an amendment to that effect when the coronavirus emergency powers laws are renewed on 30 September.

“These are real burdens for people right across the country and I think people have a right to expect that parliament will examine these things, and really put ministers through the ringer to explain why they believe are necessary and what they want to achieve by it,” Sir Graham told me in an interview on Monday.

“[Mr Johnson’s] rule of six was introduced with no criteria set out of how it was to be judged to have succeeded or failed and when it would be brought to an end.

“I hope very much that the government will accept the amendment or something like it.

“We recognise that it is time to move towards more formal democratic processes. The representatives of the British people ought to be involved in the decision-making process – it can’t just be done by sleight of hand.”

With the intervention comes a warning.

Coronavirus - Fri Sep 18, 2020
People queue up outside a coronavirus testing centre offering walk-in appointments in east London.
Cases could hit 49,000 a day by mid-October without action

MPs expect to not just debate any new big changes to lockdown rules, but have a vote on them too. Mr Johnson could face a big rebellion led by some of the biggest beasts on the benches if he does not heed the warning.

The first lockdown was simple and the party and public rallied behind the prime minister, but these are very different times and he must make very difficult judgement calls about how to deal with a second wave of COVID.

He will be weighing up the public health risk of an autumn resurgence against the economy and political fall-out that could come from an even partial closing down of the economy.

On Tuesday, the cabinet, leaders across the UK, parliament and the public will find out exactly what the prime minister intends to do.

But it is no longer enough just to set it out – his plan will only work if he can get us all to follow and the backlash is building from a weary public and restive MPs.

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