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Cabinet data gap reaction as ministers split over new Covid restrictions and demand more information


Ministers, MPs and health experts demanded better data on Omicron’s impact last night amid a row over the modeling used to push the case for new Covid restrictions.

In an emergency cabinet meeting that lasted more than two hours, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Grant Shapps were among several ministers who were said to have demanded more accurate information about the possible impact of the variable.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Alistair Jack and Nigel Adams were also said to have opposed any reintroduction of punitive restrictions without clearer evidence of Omicron’s severity.

Shoppers, some wearing face coverings, walk in Manchester on December 20. Ministers, MPs and health experts demanded better data on the impact of Omicron last night

A growing number of experts have rejected “pessimistic” modeling and “unreasonable” predictions of thousands of deaths and rising hospital admissions.

Their opposition came on the heels of a growing row over forecasts made by the government’s scientific advisers to the cabinet on Saturday, which claimed Covid deaths could reach 6,000 a day without further restrictions soon.

Modeling details were leaked to the BBC.

Many experts and MPs have publicly questioned the assumptions behind this, suggesting that Sage scientists need to show their work before it can be used to justify new restrictions.

They note that – amid mounting evidence that Omicron causes ‘milder’ disease – there remains a great deal of uncertainty about what proportion of cases end up in hospital and how effective vaccines are at preventing infection, serious illness and death.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, condemned the apparent obsession with “worst-case scenarios” and said the country was in a “completely different place” than last year because of vaccines.

“These are big decisions that affect everyone’s lives and people’s livelihoods and mental well-being across the country,” said Mark Harper, president of Tory’s Covid Recovery Group.

We all deserve to see data ministers. Show us your business. We can do much better than this.

Shadow advisor Rachel Reeves said Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (pictured) did not attend the Cobra Emergency Committee that convened over the weekend.

Shadow advisor Rachel Reeves said Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (pictured) did not attend the Cobra Emergency Committee that convened over the weekend.

Ministers cited evidence that the number of hospital admissions in London has risen in the past two weeks, with more Omicron infections in the capital than anywhere else in the UK.

But Cambridge professor David Spiegelhalter suggested that this might simply be a reflection of the variable’s transmissibility rather than its severity.

In yesterday’s virtual cabinet meeting, several ministers were said to have made it clear that they are not ready to impose restrictions until they have better data.

However, Level Up Secretary Michael Gove was one of those who argued in favor of tough action. He was supported by Health Minister Sajid Javid.

Ministers are awaiting an update of the form from Imperial College London, expected tomorrow, before making any further decisions.

Last night, former Cabinet Secretary Esther McVeigh praised Boris Johnson for keeping him from tightening restrictions.

She tweeted that she was glad the Cabinet and Prime Minister were “now listening to their own deputies and for once being pushed back into intimidation by lockdown fanatics”.

Meanwhile, Labor was in disarray, unable to say what other constraints it might support.

When asked on Good Morning Britain what specific restrictions Labor would put in place, shadow adviser Rachel Reeves replied: “This is not the job of the opposition. We do not have the information.

Shadow advisor Rachel Reeves (pictured) told Good Morning Britain that if Labor were to blame, he would follow Sage's advice

Shadow advisor Rachel Reeves (pictured) told Good Morning Britain that if Labor were to blame, he would follow Sage’s advice

She then said the party would follow Sage’s advice, adding: “For now, Sage is not calling for any specific action, but they say more action is needed.”

Referring to the weekend Cobra Emergency Committee meeting at which decisions were made about increasing funding to address Omicron, Ms. Reeves said: ‘If I had been in government, I would have been at those Covid meetings yesterday to get all of it. Evidence and decision making.

The prime minister and chancellor did not attend. They are not interested in hearing advice.

“If we were in the government, we would attend those meetings and take action.”

Figures from South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, indicate that it is much less lethal than the previous dominant variant, Delta.

Dr Peter Streicher, of the University of Johannesburg, said the death rate – the number of people who tested positive and died – had fallen by a factor of 19 – from 3 per cent to 0.16 per cent, which means only 16 deaths out of every 1,000 infected.

He added that cases were declining “rapidly” in Gauteng province, which was the epicenter of the Omicron outbreak, where the number of hospital and intensive care beds peaked.

Prof Heneghan has warned that over-pessimistic modeling means Britain is in danger of imposing annual lockdowns.

The introduction of vaccines, booster punches and antiviral drugs has reduced the risk of hospitalization and death, he said, which is ‘as good as it is’, and people should be trusted to make their own decisions about the risks they want to take.

Professor Graham Medley, who heads the modeling group that feeds Sage, suggested that the committee does not consider optimistic scenarios because “that does not lead to decisions”.

Professor Keith Willison, a chemical biologist at Imperial, has criticized the models as “widely pessimistic”, adding that they are being used “to frighten the UK population into submission and further lockdown”.

Analytics

By Eleanor Hayward

Resisting pressure for another round of tough restrictions, Boris Johnson insisted last night that he was watching the data on Omicron “hour by hour”.

Downing Street officials will spend the remaining four days until Christmas studying hospital admission numbers, along with studies from around the world.

This data will determine whether we will be allowed to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends and family.

People queue at the Covid vaccination center in London on Monday.  Ministers still hope that Omicron will be less severe than previous variants

People queue at the Covid vaccination center in London on Monday. Ministers still hope that Omicron will be less severe than previous variants

While government scientists have argued for more restrictions to prevent the NHS from being dropped under a wave of Omicron patients, the Prime Minister and his team remain unconvinced.

They insist there is not enough evidence to justify plunging Britain into a fourth lockdown, with all the disastrous economic and social damage that would ensue.

With the situation “very, very well balanced”, the government is awaiting more evidence on three main issues.

Danger

There is no doubt that Omicron is more contagious. The mutant strain arrived in Britain less than a month ago, but has already outlived the Delta to become dominant.

Infection is higher than ever, with 102,297 positive tests recorded last Wednesday, the first time the number of daily cases has crossed 100,000.

In any other phase of the pandemic, this massive growth would almost certainly have been followed by new restrictions.

But ministers are still hopeful that Omicron will be less severe than previous variants – and there is some evidence this will prove it.

Scientists in South Africa say Omicron patients are 29 percent less likely to need hospital treatment than previous variants.

A study of 211,000 Covid patients found that the proportion requiring intensive care was half that in previous waves, and most of them recover at home within three days.

Meanwhile, two studies have provided plausible biological reasons as to why Omicron is unlikely to cause serious disease and lung damage.

A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by Professor Ravi Gupta, has found signs that Omicron is less effective than other variants at infecting cells in the deep part of the lung.

This is consistent with findings from the University of Hong Kong that suggested that the variant replicates at a delta-tenth speed in the lungs, reducing disease severity.

Hospital stay

Ministers stressed that they would only consider another shutdown if the NHS faced a wave of Covid hospital admissions that would lead to a collapse of other care.

But the Prime Minister said yesterday that there was significant “uncertainty” about the key question “how many people are hospitalizing Omicron”.

The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies told ministers last week that daily hospital admissions would reach 3,000 in January without further restrictions. Sage said early action was needed to avoid a crisis.

But their model assumes that Omicron is no less severe than previous variants.

If, as is hoped, vaccines provide a good level of protection, lockdown may be unnecessary.

In South Africa, admissions are just 57 percent of the previous peak despite the similar number of cases. And the latest NHS data shows hospital admissions remain stable.

While weekly cases are up 61 percent, admissions are up only six percent.

Currently, an average of 864 Covid patients are admitted per day, down from 4,200 at the peak of January, and more than 2,000 at this time last year.

And on January 18, there were 39,254 Covid patients in hospital beds across the UK – five times yesterday’s figure of 7,482.

Vaccines and boosters

Scientists and government politicians can agree on one thing: without vaccines, the UK would be in a “huge, massive mess”.

Existing vaccines, particularly boosters, clearly protect against Omicron. But there is enormous uncertainty about whether rolling out a massive vaccine will be enough to fight the alternative.

Data from the UK’s Health Security Agency shows that two doses are not sufficient to prevent infection by Omicron. But a booster from Pfizer or Moderna increases protection by about 75 percent compared to unvaccinated vaccines.

A person receives a Covid vaccine in London on Sunday.  With a boost to 50 per cent of Britons over the age of 12, vaccinations offer the strongest argument against the new restrictions

A person receives a Covid vaccine in London on Sunday. With a boost to 50 per cent of Britons over the age of 12, vaccinations offer the strongest argument against the new restrictions

Three doses is also likely to provide higher protection against severe disease, keeping hospitalization and death rates low.

With a boost to 50 per cent of Britons over the age of 12, and nearly a million doses being delivered each day, vaccinations provide the strongest argument against the new restrictions.

Eight in ten adults in the UK have now been double stabbed. Although this may not be enough to prevent infection, it can still provide some protection against severe illness.



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