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Boris Johnson accused of ‘ducking difficult decisions’ over pulling back from Christmas lockdown

Johnson said ministers are monitoring the data ‘hour by hour’ but indicated new measures are not expected before Christmas.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Dec 20th 2021, 8:42 PM

BORIS JOHNSON HAS been accused of “ducking difficult decisions” after he drew back from imposing new Covid rules in the run-up to Christmas despite fears the NHS could be overwhelmed. 

Earlier today, Johnson warned the British public to expect new controls to curb the spread of the Omicron variant amid fears the NHS could be overwhelmed.

Following a special two-hour meeting of the Cabinet, the British Prime Minister said they were monitoring the data “hour by hour”.

However, he said the arguments for taking action were “very, very finely balanced” – indicating fresh measures were unlikely before Christmas.

“Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS,” he said.

Labour, which has said it would support the government over any further public health measures that were needed, accused the Prime Minister of putting party interests before the country.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Boris Johnson is too weak to stand up to his own backbenchers, many of whom have no plan beyond ‘let the virus rip’.

“Rather than set out a clear plan for the country, he has chosen to protect himself from his own MPs by simply not saying anything. Boris Johnson is unfit to lead.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said the Mr Johnson had offered only “chaos” at a time when the country needed clarity.

“Families want to know urgently what Covid measures to expect, so they can plan for the days ahead. Ducking the difficult decisions is not a plan,” he said.

Decisions

Johnson’s senior ministers met this afternoon to discuss the rising tide of Covid cases amid warnings the NHS could be overwhelmed without further action to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty briefed an unscheduled meeting of the Cabinet.

Downing Street had denied it was an emergency meeting, saying ministers were being updated on a fast-changing situation.

It comes after the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned daily hospital admissions could reach 3,000 without further restrictions.

Downing Street did not deny reports that a number of ministers – including Chancellor Rishi Sunak – have pushed back against calls for action without more evidence of the impact the virus would have.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was part of the job of ministers to scrutinise any advice they were given.

“We need to strike the right balance between protecting lives and livelihoods. That is what we are focused on,” the spokesman said.

Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab refused to rule out the possibility that additional measures could be required before Christmas – now less than a week away.

“I just can’t make hard, fast guarantees,” he told Sky News.

The UK Government has said that it will if necessary recall Parliament to allow MPs to vote on any new regulations it proposes for England.

However, that could prove politically problematic for Johnson, with not only senior ministers objecting to any further controls.

Last week, Johnson suffered the biggest backbench rebellion of his premiership with 100 Tory MPs voting against rules requiring Covid passports for entry into nightclubs and other venues.

Number 10 gathering

It comes as the UK PM is set to face fresh questions over gatherings held at Downing Street during lockdown restrictions after the emergence of a photo showing him, his wife, and staff in the garden of No 10 during the first national lockdown.

The photo, obtained by the Guardian, shows Johnson, his then-fiancée Carrie Symonds, and 17 other staff members in the garden on 15 May 2020, with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard on a table in front of the British Prime Minister.

No 10 has insisted work meetings often took place in the garden, and a leading human rights barrister said it is unlikely the gatherings broke the law.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC that “this wasn’t a social occasion, it was staff having a drink after a busy set of work meetings and the pressures of the day”.

That was consistent with the rules.

Johnson this evening said the photo showed “people at work, talking about work”.

“This is where I live, it is where I work. Those were meetings of people at work, talking about work,” he said. 

But the photo was taken at a time when restrictions on meeting others were still in place.

Earlier on the same day, then health secretary Matt Hancock had told the daily coronavirus briefing: “People can now spend time outdoors and exercise as often as you like – and you can meet one other person from outside your household in an outdoor, public place. But please keep 2 metres apart.”

He added: “Please stick with the rules, keep an eye on your family and don’t take risks.”

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, who examines coronavirus regulations and interprets them on Twitter for the public, said he was “doubtful it was against the law”, but that it may have been against guidance.

He said on Twitter that regulations at the time stated “you couldn’t be outside the place you were living without a reasonable excuse” and that working would be such a reason.

And that there was “no way of knowing from a pic that they weren’t working”.

However Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has urged Johnson to “tell us the truth”.

The photo

Guardian Source: The Guardian

In the photograph published by The Guardian, Johnson can be seen sitting around a garden table with his then-fiancée Carrie, and two members of staff.

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On the table are bottles of wine and a cheeseboard.

Four other members of staff are sat around a second table a distance away.

Nine people are then gathered on the grass, with another two sat on the floor to the right.

Yesterday, a No 10 spokesperson told The Guardian: “As we said last week, work meetings often take place in the Downing Street garden in the summer months. On this occasion there were staff meetings after a No 10 press conference.

“Downing Street is the Prime Minister’s home as well as his workplace. The Prime Minister’s wife lives in No 10 and therefore also legitimately uses the garden.”

But following the emergence of the photographs, Labour’s Rayner tweeted: “I guess staff meetings look a bit different if you went to Eton?

Enough is enough. Tell us the truth about what was going on in Downing Street from the very beginning immediately, Boris Johnson.

The British Prime Minister is alleged to have told one aide that they deserved a drink for “beating back” coronavirus.

Some aides reportedly carried on drinking into the evening, although there was no suggestion Johnson or Hancock had any alcohol or stayed late.

The alleged gathering is one of a number which have been reported across Whitehall during coronavirus restrictions.

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