The reason why Boris Johnson was unable to agree new Covid restrictions

Deputy Politics Editor Anushka Asthana looks at whether delaying action could mean more pain in the end

The reason that Boris Johnson was not able to act yesterday - instead urging caution and promising he wouldn’t hesitate if needed - was because the vast majority of his Cabinet would not support formal Covid restrictions without what they see as a missing piece of data.

They are waiting for analysis into how severe Omicron is and whether it’s true (as has been suggested in South Africa) that it causes less severe disease than Delta.

Even if that is shown to be the case, it is still possible (likely even) that the speed at which it is spreading will lead to a call for new restrictions.

But many Cabinet ministers - the vast majority according to one source - have argued that this final piece of the jigsaw is critical if they are to take decisions that could badly hurt the economy.

Why has the PM not yet acted to bring in new Covid measures?

At the Cabinet table yesterday and on Saturday, I’m told that voice after voice argued this case including Grant Shapps at transport, Nadhim Zahawi at education, foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and others such as Jacob Rees Mogg, Alister Jack, Stephen Barclay and - perhaps most critically - Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

A source tells me, it is not that the chancellor won’t support new measures - it is that he wants it to be evidence based.

Others clearly disagree - including Chris Whitty - the chief medical officer who opened the Cabinet session yesterday. I’m told that in a briefing to MPs last week Whitty argued that plan B measures (the current rules on wearing a mask, vaccine certificates and work from home) would not cut the peak of this Omicron wave and have only a marginal impact on the doubling rate.

But Johnson’s problem is that not only do dozens of his MPs disagree with more restrictions (at a time that revelations about Downing Street parties have critically weakened his authority) but most of the Cabinet remain cautious about anything that looks like a lockdown.

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Those who want to go further more quickly are fewer in number - but include influential voices including two other members of what is known as the 'Covid quad' - Michael Gove and Sajid Javid.

They perhaps subscribe more to a position that one scientist put to me last night. Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said "let’s hope for the best (re that severity data) but prepare for the worst”.

He said “dither and delay” would only worsen the crisis and said many scientists were dismayed that Johnson hadn’t at least issued guidance to tell people in England to limit their contacts. That is the position taken by Scotland.

Guidance, of course, would not require a recall of Parliament and so be easier for Johnson who fears the alternative. Should he want to bring restrictions in after Christmas he is likely to get his vote through Parliament with Labour support - but face a vast and destabilising rebellion on his own side.

The government has been hoping the booster jab programme will help curb the spread of Omicron Credit: PA

I asked one Cabinet minister what if the Omicron data is still bad and yet some colleagues still don’t want to back restrictions. Their only option then is to “do a Lord Frost” he said, about the Brexit minister who resigned from government. But he argued - that no one still around the table would do that.

However, another source did feel that health experts placed politicians in an impossible position. They are just looking at the health data so there is no cost to action - while we have to think of the economy, they argued. Some expressed anger that scientists had not more quickly sanctioned double vaccinations among teenagers. They haven’t supported us enough, they said.

For all the resistance to action yesterday in Cabinet there is also an underlying acceptance. As one Cabinet minister put it to me - we hope that data is good, but we also know it is very likely (although not certain) that it will leave us needing formal restrictions after Christmas. At that point - what about the Cabinet resistance?

“People can do a Lord Frost and resign,” said one minister, “but I doubt anyone will”.