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Health chiefs gauge support for ‘immediate Plan B rollout’ – but Sunak says it is not yet needed

Rishi Sunak insisted there was no need to move to Plan B to cut Covid cases today – after health chiefs discussed whether there needed to be an ‘immediate rollout’ of tougher measures to combat a surge in cases.

The Chancellor insisted that the data shows that bringing back working from home and introducing mandatory Covid passports was not yet required.

His comments to the BBC‘s Andrew Marr programme came after it was reported that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) contacted local authorities on Friday to canvass their level of support for the ‘immediate rollout of the winter plan – plan B’.

An ‘official – sensitive’ document seen by the Observer sought opinions from the leaders and chief executives of councils across England to be fed to the Cabinet Office before then end of the day.

But Mr Sunak today said: ‘The data does not suggest we should be immediately moving to Plan B.’ 

However a leading Government scientist said ‘some kind of Plan B’ was needed immediately. 

Professor Adam Finn, who is on the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said Covid-19 hospital admissions and deaths are rising, and warned against complacency in what he said is a ‘worsening’ situation.

Rishi Sunak

The Chancellor insisted that the data shows that bringing back working from home and introducing mandatory Covid passports was not yet required. Meanwhile shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the Government should introduce its Plan B to tackle the rising rates of coronavirus now.

Health chiefs gauge support for 'immediate Plan B rollout' - but Sunak says it is not yet needed

Boris ‘took his eye of the ball’ because he was focusing on Cop26 climate summit 

Boris Johnson has ‘taken his eye off the the ball’ and his focus on preparations for the forthcoming Cop26 climate summit is to blame for a faltering Covid-19 booster roll-out, sources have claimed.

Tensions are rising in Whitehall over the slow take-up of booster vaccines and jabs for 12- to 15-year-olds which has coincided with a sharp rise in infections and hospitalisations, with a source claiming the Prime Minister’s energies continue to be consumed by preparations for the upcoming conference in Glasgow. 

The booster jabs are intended to deal with waning immunity among groups which first received the vaccines at the start of the year – but the number administered each day has been a fraction of the rate during the initial programme.

The jabs will not be rolled out to the under-50s until a greater proportion of the older age group have been jabbed, which at the current rate is expected to be in early 2022. 

MPs say they have been bombarded with complaints from constituents about the glacial pace of the booster jab rollout. 

It comes as an analysis by The Mail on Sunday found if the current rate of vaccinations for those aged 12 to 15 is not accelerated, then barely one-third of the age group will have received a jab by the start of December.

The slow progress has led to calls for Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to write directly to pupils to urge them to have the vaccine. But the move is opposed by other Cabinet Ministers who believe it is wrong to bypass parents.    

Mr Johnson responded to the criticism this weekend by asking Emily Lawson, the head of the No 10 Delivery Unit, to return to her old job running England’s vaccine programme. 

Meanwhile shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the Government should introduce its Plan B to tackle the rising rates of coronavirus now.

Speaking on Marr, Ms Reeves was asked what Labour’s position was on reintroducing restrictions such as the wearing of face coverings and working from home.

She said: ‘Labour as a responsible opposition have always said that we would follow the science, and we’ve seen today that Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) are saying that some aspects of Plan B, like wearing masks on public transports and in shops, and also working from home more flexibly should be introduced.

‘I think the first thing is the Government have got to do more to make Plan A work.

‘If the scientists are saying work from home and masks, we should do that. So get A working better because the vaccination programme has been stalling, introduce those parts of Plan B.

‘But there are also things not in A or B that need to be done, like paying statutory sick pay from day one and also better ventilation in public spaces.’

Asked directly whether Plan B should be introduced now, she said: ‘Yes, but let’s not let the Government off the hook with Plan A either.’

It comes after shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Times Radio on Thursday that the party was in favour of Plan B, only for party leader Sir Keir Starmer to later say the debate over which plan to follow was the “wrong focus”. 

Prof Finn warned vaccines are not going to be enough to keep the spread of coronavirus under control, and said people need to make effort to avoid contact in order to slow transmission rates.

He told Trevor Phillips on Sky News: ‘I think that the vaccine programme is doing a lot to make the situation much less severe than it would otherwise be.

‘And the vaccines principally are very effective at stopping people from getting seriously ill.

‘They’re not so effective unfortunately at stopping infections altogether or stopping the virus from being spread about.

‘They do have an effect on that, but they’re not by themselves going to be enough at the present time to keep the spread of the virus under control.

‘And we do need to see people continuing to make efforts to avoid contact, to avoid transmission, and to do other things as well as get vaccinated if we’re going to stop this rise from going up further.’

Professor Adam Finn, who is on the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said Covid-19 hospital admissions and deaths are rising, and warned against complacency in what he said is a 'worsening' situation

Professor Adam Finn, who is on the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said Covid-19 hospital admissions and deaths are rising, and warned against complacency in what he said is a ‘worsening’ situation

But Vaccines Minister Maggie Throup said Plan A is ‘working’ and ‘where we need to be’.

Asked how Covid-19 cases are going to be brought down, she told LBC: ‘I think everybody is aware that we’ve got the autumn and winter plan, and part of that is Plan A and part is Plan B, so it would be remiss of us not to have contingencies.

‘But the data right now shows that Plan A is where we need to be, and we look at the data day in day out, and that is showing that Plan A is where we need to be with the vaccination programme.’

Asked about where case numbers will have to get to before the public will be asked to work from home, Ms Throup said: ‘The public has been very patient in doing what we’ve asked them to do.

‘And I think Plan A has actually opened up people’s lives and that’s so important because if we do need to take further measures I’m sure they’ll have appreciated exactly the freedoms we’ve been able to offer them at this time.

‘Plan A is working, as I said, the data right now shows that Plan A is working.’

Government row erupts over plan to send teenagers ‘please get the vaccine’ letter: Whitehall officials say move risks undermining parental consent as four out of five 12 to 15-year-olds remain unjabbed

Ministers are considering writing to every 12 to 15-year-old in the country to urge them to get their Covid vaccine.

The letter would be signed by Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi in a bid to improve the slow jab rollout in schools.

So far only 19.8 per cent of that age group has been jabbed.

However, the move has sparked a row within Government over whether writing to children directly would be appropriate. 

The letter would be signed by Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi in a bid to improve the slow jab rollout in schools

The letter would be signed by Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi in a bid to improve the slow jab rollout in schools

Whitehall officials have raised concerns that the move would risk undermining parental consent.

Since the rollout was extended to all 12- to 15-year-olds more than a month ago, MPs have warned that parents must be given a final say in whether their child should be vaccinated. 

Schools normally send forms to parents seeking permission for pupils to receive a jab.

However, children also have a say and in some cases can override their parents, although the Government has insisted this would only apply ‘very rarely’.

It comes as analysis for The Mail on Sunday shows only a third of 12- to 15-year-olds will be jabbed by December if the rollout continues at the current pace.

Just 564,518 out of 2.8 million 12- to 15-year-olds in England had been vaccinated by last Friday – compared with nearly two thirds of 16- to 18-year-olds.

The jab rollout has averaged just 12,100 of such children a day in the past month.

Failing to significantly speed up kids’ jabs could leave the majority of children in that age group unprotected by Christmas because the vaccine takes 14 days to take full effect.

Last week, the Prime Minister held a meeting with Mr Zahawi, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield about how to speed up the rollout.

NHS bosses are also scrambling to use half term to vaccinate as many children as possible, with England’s top GP, Dr Nikki Kanani – medical director of primary care for NHS England – making a plea to parents to book their children in by revealing her 13-year-old has received the jab.

Some 2.5 million NHS letters – covering almost the entire age cohort of 12- to 15-year-olds in England – are being sent out from tomorrow to parents and guardians in a blitz aimed at increasing uptake.

It comes after the NHS’s national booking service for Covid jabs opened up for 12- to 15-year-olds.

Dr Kanani, who is also deputy lead for the Covid vaccination programme, said: ‘Millions of parents will be receiving letters from tomorrow inviting their children to get a Covid vaccine through the National Booking Service.

‘This provides an additional way for 12- to 15-year-olds to get their vaccine following the rollout in schools that has seen more than a half million vaccinated.’

She added: ‘The decision to get vaccinated has always been a private choice between a child and their parent or guardian – my 13-year-old son received his vaccine at school on the same day I had my booster dose in a local pharmacy.

‘I would urge families to look at the information together and then book in to give children and their loved ones crucial protection ahead of winter.’ Parents whose children have had the jab will also receive the letter, as it is part of a mass mailing. The NHS says to ignore it.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi visit the Westbury-on-Trym Church of England Academy in Bristol

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi visit the Westbury-on-Trym Church of England Academy in Bristol

The sluggish nature of the campaign contrasts sharply with the situation in Scotland.

When the decision to vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds was made on September 20, rates were similar in both countries – with 5.7 per cent of that age group jabbed in England, and 5.4 per cent in Scotland.

These youngsters had already been vaccinated because they are clinically vulnerable, or live with someone who is, meaning they fall into a higher priority group.

But in the month since then, Scotland has stormed ahead, having jabbed more than 50 per cent of its 12- to 15-year-olds – a vaccination rate of 3,640 children a day.

Over the same period, England has only managed to shift the dial to just under 20 per cent.

The contrasting campaigns may have contributed to the divergence in Covid case rates in under-15s since early September, when they stood at about 400 a week per 100,000 in both England and Scotland. In England, they have since shot up to more than 800 per 100,000, while in Scotland they have dropped to below 200.

Experts are worried that higher Covid case rates are starting to spill over into older age groups as children bring the virus home to parents and grandparents.

They believe that vaccinating secondary-school pupils is key to controlling the virus this winter, as Covid rates are currently at their highest in teenagers.

A recent modelling study calculated that jabbing all 12- to 15-year-olds could prevent tens of thousands of hospital admissions, mainly of older people, saving thousands of lives. If most of this age group remains unvaccinated, however, these benefits will not materialise.

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