Published:

Coronavirus 1) New restrictions unlikely as daily cases fall, ministers signal

“Further Covid restrictions are unlikely to be introduced, ministers signalled as cases fell across the country for the first time in a week. The latest data shows cases in England falling by almost a quarter after five days of successive rises, while the growth in hospital numbers slowed. On Sunday, ministers said they were “cautiously confident” that extra curbs could be avoided, saying there was “nothing in the data” so far to warrant more restrictions. However, they stressed that they will continue to watch the numbers closely, with caution about interpreting data from weekends and holiday periods. On Wednesday, Boris Johnson is set to review the Plan B measures brought in last month, including rules mandating masks in almost all indoor public settings and requiring Covid passports for nightclubs and large events.” – Daily Telegraph

  • A senior cabinet minister said that the public had already made “significant” changes to their behaviour to protect themselves – The Times
  • Suffering from a cold after pandemic? Time to isolate, says chief medical officer for Wales – The Times
  • France cuts Covid isolation period to five days for double-vaccinated adults as Boris Johnson faces pressure to do the same – Daily Mail

Comment:

Coronavirus 2) Pre-departure tests for travellers entering England ‘are likely to be axed when rules are reassessed this week’

“A travel requirement stipulating that people must take a pre-departure Covid test before arriving in England is likely to be dropped this week. Ministers will review the plan B measures and travel testing requirements this week, and while many restrictions are expected to remain in place, a senior government source said pre-departure tests will soon be scrapped. The source told The Times that ‘pre-departure tests were brought in to try to slow the spread of Omicron and stop it coming into the UK,’ but said the tests are largely redundant now that Omicron is widespread. It comes as ministers declared yesterday there is ‘nothing’ in the data to suggest that further Covid restrictions will be needed in England despite rising cases.” – Daily Mail

Coronavirus 3) Test distributor with 2.5 million kits closed for Christmas

“More questions are being asked about the government’s strategy for distributing lateral flow tests after it emerged that the sole distributor to pharmacies closed for four days shortly after it received 2.5 million tests. Alliance Healthcare, from whom pharmacies receive LFTs to hand out to members of the public who come in with codes, took delivery of the tests on Christmas Eve and then shut. A government source said last week that shortages in independent pharmacies was a result of deliveries having “closed down for Christmas”. Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “Why on earth did the government not prepare for this and ensure alternative options for delivery were secured?” – The Times

Coronavirus 4) School staff absences could force a fresh return to online lessons as masks make a classroom comeback

“Entire classes may need to be merged into larger groups or sent home to work remotely due to teacher absences caused by coronavirus, the Education Secretary said yesterday. Schools may find it ‘impossible’ to deliver face-to-face teaching to all pupils as the Omicron variant leads to mass staff shortages, Nadhim Zahawi added. His admission came as the Department for Education confirmed that secondary school pupils will have to wear masks in classrooms and test themselves twice a week when they return tomorrow. In an open letter to schools sent yesterday, Mr Zahawi said remote learning ‘should only be on a short-term measure’ and schools ‘should return to full-time in-person attendance for all pupils as soon as practicable’.” – Daily Mail

  • Keep schools open by merging classes, Zahawi tells head teachers – The Times
  • Backlash against face masks in secondary schools as Covid cases ease – Daily Telegraph
  • UK ministers told to draw up ‘robust contingency plans’ for Covid absences – FT
  • Hospitals looking after elderly as number of care homes in England falls – Daily Telegraph

Staff shortages elsewhere:

  • Bin collections cancelled across the UK as Government plans for Covid absences in public sector to rise by a quarter – Daily Telegraph
  • NHS to recruit tens of thousands of reservists to ease staffing concerns exposed by pandemic – Daily Telegraph

Comment:

Coronavirus 5) Dutch anti-lockdown protester is mauled by police dogs and hit with batons as riot cops battle to break up thousands-strong march in Amsterdam against Holland’s strict measures

“Riot police tried to break up thousands of Dutch protesters as crowds gathered in Amsterdam to protest Covid lockdown and vaccination measures in the Netherlands today. Demonstrators, most of whom were mask-less and ignored social distancing guidelines, defied the local government’s outlawing of the protest due to fears some demonstrators might be planning to attend ‘prepared for violence’. Videos on social media showed one man try and escape a police dog biting his hand and in other clips showed chaos unfold as crowds ran around the city.” – Daily Mail

Comment:

Truss must set deadline for new EU deal over Northern Ireland protocol, say unionists

“Unionists have warned Liz Truss that there will be “major implications” if she fails to set a swift deadline to end negotiations with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, said the foreign secretary had to provide a “clear date” for concluding the talks. The warning comes after Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s chief negotiator, said last week that London had “breached a great deal of trust” with Europe over the protocol. Donaldson said: “We need a clear date now. We need a clear timeline in which there is an expectation of real progress or the government takes the action that is necessary. “It is crucial that Liz Truss moves this process forward quickly and that we get real and meaningful progress on a range of issues, not least of which is removing the checks on the movement of goods within the UK internal market.”” – The Times

>Today:

Officials hope for deal on Channel migrant crisis after French election

“Officials are working on plans for a deal to tackle the Channel migrant crisis later in the year as the government has “all but given up” hope of reaching an agreement with France before elections in April, The Times has been told. Senior Home Office staff said they were developing proposals that could be tabled “once the heat of the election is over” in the hope that whoever wins will return with their own “realistic” plans for tackling the record crossings. Almost 30,000 migrants crossed the Channel in small boats last year, more than tripling 2020’s record-breaking figure of 8,420.” – The Times

Tories urge Johnson to ease the squeeze on household budgets…

“Energy bosses have called on Boris Johnson to spread the burden of “very, very high” price increases over several years amid Conservative unrest at the rising cost of living. In a sign that the financial squeeze on consumers could dominate the start of this year, 20 Tories urged the prime minister to cut VAT on energy bills and remove the environmental levy. Others blamed spiralling costs for a poll showing him far behind Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, in crucial “red wall” constituencies. Energy bills, interest rates, taxes and inflation are all due to rise this year. Greg Jackson, chief executive of Octopus Energy, said the “three to five-fold increase in wholesale costs” would result in higher energy prices for consumers once the price cap rose in April, unless the government intervened.” – The Times

… as charities join forces in call for green pledges from the PM

“Leading conservation charities have written to Boris Johnson urging him to make a series of new year’s resolutions to tackle the nature and climate crises. The National Trust, RSPB, Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts have joined forces to call for urgent action that builds on the promises made at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow. They are asking the government to make seven commitments this year, focusing on protecting and restoring peatlands, paying farmers to restore nature, and additional measures to protect marine environments. They are also calling for an immediate ban on the use of peat for horticultural purposes in the professional and amateur sectors, and a ban on burning upland peat.” – The Times

Analysis:

… and levelling up is to wait as No 10 confronts pandemic

“Boris Johnson faces another wait to unveil his levelling up white paper as Downing Street prepares for the start of this year to be dominated again by coronavirus. The government had hoped that the document of more than 100 pages, marking the first attempt to flesh out the prime minister’s slogan, would be its first major intervention of the year. The paper, being written by Michael Gove, the secretary for housing, communities and levelling up, is now more likely to be published later this month. Johnson promised last May that it would be published by the end of the year. It emerged in December, however, that the white paper had slipped back to this year.” – The Times

Knight all former prime ministers, says Hoyle

“All former prime ministers should be knighted as Sir Tony Blair was, the Speaker of the Commons has said. Sir Lindsay Hoyle backed the Queen’s decision to appoint Blair to the Order of the Garter after a 14-year wait. Blair’s appointment as a Knight Companion followed months of speculation over why it took her so long to confer the honour. The appointment, which is in the personal gift of the Queen, has regularly been bestowed upon past prime ministers. Sir John Major, Blair’s predecessor, was the last to receive the honour. Hoyle called for the honour to be given to all former prime ministers, including David Cameron, because occupying No 10 was “one of the toughest jobs in the world”.” – The Times

Nick Timothy: Like it or not, we are all still living in the shadow of Blair

“Tony Blair was, in David Cameron’s famous line, “the future once”. Yet for a man written off as a relic more than 16 years ago, Labour’s last prime minister still looms large in British public life. For the past two years, his policy institute has researched ways through the pandemic. His allies push Labour to return to the Blairite modernising handbook. His decision to accept a knighthood from the Queen, announced over the weekend, has driven critics from Left to Right into spasms of outrage. More than 150,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the knighthood should be reversed, and one can only imagine the campaign being hastily arranged in Kirkcaldy to award Gordon Brown the same title as his bitter rival.” – Daily Telegraph 

News in brief: