Freedom Day could be watered down in weeks, sources

Freedom Day could be watered down in a fortnight: SAGE tells Boris to prepare to roll back mask-wearing and other lockdown curbs in August if hospital admissions don’t slow down

  • SAGE has told PM he may need to roll back some curbs by end of first week of August if admissions don’t slow
  • Would mark another extraordinary U-turn just three weeks after Freedom Day was given go-ahead on July 19
  • Hospital admissions could be on par with first peak last spring by the end of this August, scientists now fear 

England could be plunged back into a quasi-lockdown in just a fortnight because Covid hospital admissions are running higher than the Government’s scientific advisers predicted, it was claimed today. 

SAGE has briefed Boris Johnson that he should be prepared to roll back some mandatory curbs — such as mask wearing, social distancing and home working — in the first week of August if hospitalisations don’t slow down. 

It would mark another extraordinary U-turn and put an end to people’s newfound liberties just three short weeks after ‘Freedom Day’ was given the go-ahead on July 19. 

In models published earlier this month, SAGE estimated that daily Covid admissions would reach between 1,000 and 2,000 at the peak of a third wave in late August, while daily deaths were tipped to hit between 100 to 200.

But there are already signs that the crisis is on track to surpass those estimates. On July 14, the latest date for which data is available, there were 745 admissions for the virus across the UK and officials say this number is doubling every three weeks.

It suggests there could be 1,500 daily patients by the end of the first week of August and 3,000 by the end of the month, which would put the peak on par with the first wave last spring, when the NHS was close to breaking point. Deaths are also already close to breaching the 100 mark after 96 were recorded yesterday.

A source told The i that any curbs reintroduced next month would be ‘less of an emergency brake and more of a gear change’, adding that mandatory face masks would be the ‘easiest’ measure to reimpose with the least resistance from the public. 

A separate Government adviser told MailOnline that Mr Johnson should ‘stay strong’ and not be ‘blown off course’ at the first sign of adversity.

There will be questions about the timing of the leak, after it emerged today that ministers are preparing to adopt the new slogan ‘keep life moving’ in the coming days. It will replace ‘hands, face, space’ which was constantly repeated by ministers and featured heavily at Downing Street press conferences and on Government Covid warning adverts.

Three different teams within SAGE modelled how Covid hospital admissions could look after Freedom Day on July 19. Actual hospitalisations – which represent how many are occurring now – are shown in black and compared to various pessimistic, optimistic and central scenarios. The research teams simulated scenarios in which people quickly returned to normal and stopped wearing masks and others in which the public were more cautious. They also looked at various vaccine efficacy rates

While hospitalisations are trending upwards across the UK, the rate at which the number is increasing is slowing.  Week on week data in the three weeks leading up to July 13 showed the rate hospitalisations were increasing at dropped from 52.9 per cent, to 36 per cent and then 30.4 per cent

SAGE has insisted that there are still a lot of unknowns about how the epidemic will grow in the coming weeks, based on how people’s behaviour changes following July 19, vaccine uptake and how well the jabs continue to perform. 

For example, there are already very early signs that the rate at which hospitalisations are increasing has started to slow down. Admissions are rising by 39 per cent per week now compared to 57 per cent earlier this month.

Insiders also say will be keeping an eye on ICU admissions, ventilator capacity and the length of hospital stay rather than solely on the number of admissions. 

This is because patients are presenting with more mild symptoms and being discharged sooner in this wave compared to previous points of the crisis, thanks to the vaccines. 

A source who sits on one of the Government other expert advisory groups told MailOnline: ‘The focus on hospital admissions is misplaced. [The PM] needs to be looking at beds occupied, which is a much more important indicator than admissions.

‘Thanks to the vaccines, admissions are not the same as they once were. Patients presenting now are not as demanding, they are not people who are desperately sick and need a high level of medical treatment. Of course there are still some. 

‘There is a broad consensus that the third peak will happen sometime in August and then start falling — just when the Government is being urged to reverse. We should stay strong and not be blown off course.

‘The other issue is to what degree would a rapid backtracking [on Freedom Day] do to levels of fear and anxiety that has built up during the pandemic?’

Exactly when the third peak will happen is still not known but the experts believe it will be sometime in late August at the earliest.

They are bracing for more than 100,000 daily infections – which would dwarf the peak of 60,000 in January – and are expecting cases to stay ‘extremely high’ all summer.  

There is a ten-fold lower risk of dying from Covid now than in the second wave and a fourfold lower risk of being admitted to hospital because of the ‘vaccine effect’ and the fact younger people now make up the bulk of cases.

For this reason, SAGE — whose projections have guided No10 through the pandemic — expects the number of daily deaths to be ‘considerably smaller’ than the 1,200 recorded in January and anticipates hospital admissions will stay ‘well below’ the 4,000 in the winter. 

No10 refuses to rule out making people prove they are double-jabbed to get into PUBS 

No10 today refused to rule out making people prove they are double-jabbed to get into pubs – as Tory rebels vowed to fight Boris Johnson’s ‘disgusting’ threat to restrict access to nightclubs.

The PM faces a furious backlash from MPs and civil liberties campaigners after delivering an ultimatum to young people about the shape of the rules from September at a press briefing last night. 

And pushed on whether the prospective edict could apply to bars as well Downing Street merely said it will ‘use the coming weeks to look at the evidence’. 

Former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption said the move was ‘completely unnecessary’ given the high rates of vaccine take-up across the UK. 

Scientist Carl Heneghan suggested it is the thin end of the wedge, saying if the government is worried about ‘crowded spaces’ they will end up demanding medical evidence to board the Tube.   

And Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, who chaired the ethics advisory board for NHSx on its contact tracing app, warned that ministers need to be wary about ‘where incentive meets coercion’. Critics also pointed out that being vaccinated is not a guarantee people do not have coronavirus, with around 40 per cent of hospital cases having been jabbed.

Tory MP Charles Walker declared he will vote against the plan if it comes to the Commons after the summer recess. ‘It will start with nightclubs and then quickly move on to other parts of the hospitality sector,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.

Another senior lockdown-sceptic told MailOnline there are ‘likely’ to be enough Tory rebels. But they stressed a revolt would be ‘pointless’ unless Labour lines up against the measures.

‘It’s all about Keir Starmer… unless Labour go through the division lobbies in opposition it will happen,’ the MP said. 

The MP said the PM’s was using a ‘disgusting’ tactic to pressure young people to get jabs. ‘I am profoundly disgusted that a Conservative government is manipulating the public like this… it is awful,’ they said.

Asked whether pubs could also be caught by the requirement, a No10 spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister talked about the sort of areas we were considering, and nightclubs are where there is significant evidence we have at the moment.

‘But we’re going to use the coming weeks to look at the evidence, particularly both in the UK and globally before making a specific decision.’

But, in papers published last Monday when Freedom Day was announced, SAGE asked the Government to have ‘contingency plans’ in place in case the epidemic spirals beyond their predictions. 

The scale of the third wave remains highly uncertain because it remains to be seen how people will behave when curbs are lifted. Any change in behaviour won’t be felt until about a fortnight after Freedom Day due to how long it takes for people to start testing positive and falling ill after contracting the disease.

There are smaller uncertainties including how long vaccine immunity lasts and the true number of people who have not been for a jab yet – because population numbers are not yet available from the census earlier this year.

The central forecast of a maximum 200 daily deaths and 2,000 hospital admissions is based on people gradually edging back to normal over several months.

It also works on the assumption that people continue to stay at home if they’re sick, keep social contacts limited, wear masks in crowded areas and return to offices in a phased manner. 

News that the Government could have to reimpose some Covid curbs comes amid reports that No10 will change its Covid slogan to promote the return to normal this summer. 

The ‘hands, face, space’ slogan, which replaced ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ mantra from the first wave, will be dropped in favour of a plea to ‘keep life moving’ despite hundreds of thousands of people isolating.

The change in guidance comes despite there have been widespread disruptions to the volume of people being ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app.  

Today a third of the Dorset Police control room staff were off work after being notified by the NHS Covid app or Test & Trace to self-isolate or following a positive test – at the same time as 999 calls surged 20 per cent week on week.

Royal Mail has also seen an increase in absences due self-isolating staff, and this morning announced delays to deliveries in 10 parts of England.

In the face of widespread anger over labour shortages as Covid cases continued to soar, the Prime Minister this week announced a plan for a ‘small number’ of critical workers to be able to continue their functions.

But British Meat Processors Association chief executive Nick Allen criticised ‘confusing messages’ from the Government as he said ministers have not clarified who is applicable.

‘There’s an air of despondency creeping through the industry really. Until now we’ve managed to keep the food supply chain running but there’s a sense of we’re starting to fail on that front,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Asked if production lines are stalling, he said: ‘They are. It’s happening already. We’re starting to see that at retail level and in restaurants – everyone is struggling to get things out really.’

British Meat Processors Association chief executive Nick Allen said the industry is not clear who is covered by the exemption for a small number of double-jabbed critical workers.

‘It was made very clear to us late yesterday that this exemption will be for very, very few people. They described it as setting the bar very, very high and we’re certainly not counting on that,’ he said.

Pubs and shops have complained about having to close because of the number of people being ‘pinged’ as contacts by the NHS Covid-19 app, while medics have also raised concerns.

The latest figures show more than 500,000 people in England and Wales were asked to isolate by the NHS app in the week up to July 1.

The issue has hit the health service itself, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, saying many ambulance and acute hospital trusts were finding themselves ‘under extreme pressure’ because of a combination of ‘very high demand and very high levels of staff absence due to self-isolation’.  

The recent days have seen delays on the Tube, trains and the cancellation of bin collections.  

The latest play to be cancelled after losing cast members to self-isolation is Kenneth Branagh’s production of The Browning Version, the Financial Times reported.   

Mr Johnson resisted calls from businesses struggling to cope with reduced staffing levels by declining to introduce a more wide-reaching change to quarantine rules ahead of August 16, when a testing regime will replace the requirement for fully-vaccinated contacts to isolate.

The Prime Minister argued self-isolation is ‘one of the few shots we have got left in our locker’ as he scrapped most remaining legal restrictions in England on so-called ‘freedom day’ on Monday.

He suggested an exemption would cover some in hospitals and care homes, or working in the supply of food, electricity and medicines, and transport, defence and borders.

But the Government has said there is no ‘blanket exemption for any sector or role’ and decisions will be made largely on a case-by-case basis.

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