The shift to the coronavirus Plan B is an attempt to “buy time” to avoid the threat of a million Omicron infections by the end of the year, Sajid Javid said as he fought back against Tory anger over the measures.
The Health Secretary defended the sudden shift in the Government’s approach to tackling the virus in England, with an extension of mask-wearing from Friday, a return to working from home on Monday and mandatory Covid passports for large venues from Wednesday.
Mr Javid acknowledged the decisions will have a “real impact on our liberties” but insisted that taking action now is the only way to avoid having to impose tougher measures later.
He faced a barrage of Tory criticism when he announced the measures in the Commons at the same time as Boris Johnson addressed the nation on Wednesday.
Conservative anger has been fuelled by suspicions the new measures were introduced as an attempt to distract from the Prime Minister’s troubles over an alleged staff party in Downing Street during last December’s lockdown.
Mr Javid insisted the measures are necessary to “build our collective defences” through the vaccination programme in the face of the rapidly-spreading Omicron.
With a doubling rate of two-and-a-half to three days, Mr Javid told Sky News: “It would mean, at that rate, by the end of this month we could hit about one million infections in the community throughout the UK.
“We’ve always been clear that should the data change and should it move in the wrong direction and it looked like the NHS might come under unsustainable pressure – remember what that would mean, we wouldn’t be able to get the emergency care not just for Covid but for a car accident, or anything like that – we would act and implement Plan B.
“I don’t enjoy doing that, no-one does – it is a very difficult thing for many people, asking them to work from home or wearing face masks and things, it is a real impact on our liberties.
“But I hope that people will understand that by taking decisive action now, we can potentially avoid action later.”
The new regulations will be put to a debate and vote in the Commons next week and with Labour’s support they are certain to be approved, despite the prospect of a large Conservative revolt.
Unease about the measures on the Tory benches will have been amplified by a series of hostile front pages on usually supportive newspapers – The Sun mocked up the Prime Minister as The Grinch, the Daily Mail contrasted the announcement of Plan B with the Downing Street Christmas party, saying “One rule for them, new rules for the rest of us”.
The Daily Telegraph, which former aide Dominic Cummings claims Mr Johnson still regards as his “real boss”, carried the headline “Don’t go to work, but do go to parties” – a reference to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that festive bashes should still go ahead this year despite the call to stay away from offices.
In a sign of the anger on the Tory benches, MP Marcus Fysh described plans to bring in Covid health certificates as “really draconian” and an “utter disgrace”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that vaccine passports are “a massive imposition on our liberties”.
He added: “It’s a disgrace that they’re pursuing that, utter disgrace.”
He accused Government scientific advisers and England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty of having a “history of over-egging the data and picking data points out that suit their narrative”.
The Plan B measures will be reviewed on January 5, before their expiry date of January 26.
The regulations, published on Thursday evening, list locations where face coverings must be worn, including theatres, cinemas and places of worship.
Sports stadia are also listed but the Department of Health confirmed masks were only required in indoor areas.
Places where they do not need to be worn include restaurants, bars, nightclubs and gyms.
Former minister Steve Baker, a prominent figure in the Covid Recovery Group of Conservatives, said it is “vital” the “maximum number of Conservative MPs vote against Plan B”.
In a message to would-be rebels, the Prime Minister’s Official spokesman said: “I simply would make the point that we do know, and the advice that we have received, is without action – given the incredibly fast growth rate of this variant – the consequences, in terms of hospitalisations and deaths, could be severe.”
Meanwhile, critics claimed the fallout from the events in Downing Street in 2020 has undermined the Government’s message.
Mr Johnson’s former spokeswoman Allegra Stratton quit after footage emerged of her joking about a Christmas party at a mock press conference days after the alleged event, while Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has launched an investigation into what happened on December 18, 2020 in Downing Street.
There have also been a series of further allegations about parties involving senior Tories and officials during the lockdown.
Former minister David Davis questioned “how are you going to prosecute people who don’t obey it given the four previous parties?”
He told ITV’s Peston: “I think the real issue is on the authority of the Government to enforce a, as it were, new lockdown because people look at this and say why should we? It’s them and us again.”
Public Health Scotland has encouraged people to cancel Christmas parties, amid rising concerns about the Omicron variant.
Dr Nick Phin, the organisation’s director of public health science, urged people to move such gatherings to another time in order to help in the fight against the spread of the virus.
Data on Wednesday showed there were 568 cases of Omicron confirmed in the UK, but the true figure is estimated to be “probably closer to 10,000”, Mr Javid said.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies from University College London, told Sky News the “virus is moving very fast so it’s important that we react to that fast”.
He added: “It’s a bit like if you think of a month’s worth of rain falling in a few days, that leads to flooding and it’s a similar type of scenario… we can reduce that by reducing social mixing and allow time to slow the virus down and get vaccine into more people’s arms.”