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UK Covid: over 50,000 cases reported for first time since July as Johnson rejects calls to move to ‘plan B’ – as it happened

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2021-10-21

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5.39pm BST

Afternoon summary

  • Boris Johnson has said there is no need for the government to activate its Covid plan B because coronavirus cases are not rising beyond expectations. (See 3.51pm.)
  • The UK has recorded more than 50,000 new daily Covid cases - the highest rate for more than three months. (See 4.21pm.)
  • Sir Keir Starmer has said the government’s plan A is “failing” because the vaccine booster rollout is happening too slowly. (See 4.42pm.) He called for booster shots to be delivered at the rate of 500,000 a day - a target also set in a paper from Tony Blair’s thinktank. (See 10.27am.)
  • Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, has refused to back Sajid Javid’s call for Tory MPs to set an example by wearing masks in the Commons. No 10 also defended the right of MPs not to wear masks in the chamber. (See 1.16pm.)
  • The Department for Health and Social Care has announced it will spend £162m helping care homes retain and recruit staff. The money will go to councils to allow them, working with providers, to recruit staff. “It will also be available to help retain the existing workforce - through overtime payments and staff banks of people ready to work in social care - and will provide further capacity to support their health and wellbeing through occupational health,” the DHSC says.

5.39pm BST

Labour wrong about vaccine wall crumbling, says expert

On Radio 4’s PM programme a few minutes ago Prof Jeremy Brown , professor of respiratory infection at University College London and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said that Labour’s claim about the vaccine wall crumbling (see 4.42pm ) was “not an accurate description of what’s going on at present”.

He said people dying in hospital with Covid were generally people who had not been vaccinated at all. If fully vaccinated people were ending up in hospital in increasing numbers, that was only happening “to a very minor extent”, he said. The real problem was with those who have never been vaccinated in the first place, he said.

Updated at 9.26am BST

5.16pm BST

GPs in England are threatening to take industrial action in protest at the government’s attempt to force them to see any patient who wants a face-to-face appointment, my colleage Denis Campbell reports.

Related: England GPs threaten industrial action over in-person appointments

5.08pm BST

The Welsh government has announced it is spending an extra £40m on social care to ease the pressure on hospital beds over the winter. Eluned Morgan , the health minister, announced the funding as she published the government’s winter health plan (pdf).

5.08pm BST

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Sajid Javid arriving at St John the Evangelist church in Bexley earlier, where he was one of many senior Conservatives attending the funeral of James Brokenshire, the former cabinet minister. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Updated at 5.15pm BST

4.57pm BST

Cummings says Labour should replace Starmer with Nandy to have best chance of beating Johnson

Dominic Cummings , Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser at No 10 who is now his fiercest critic from the right, has used his latest post on his subscription-only Substack service to suggest that Labour should ditch Sir Keir Starmer for someone like Lisa Nandy.

Here is an extract.

The ideal replacement is a woman from the Midlands who can focus on the public and build a team . I don’t know much about Labour MPs, and obviously you need to focus group the hell out of this, but Lisa Nandy seems the closest fit to the job description. Boris cannot take women seriously. Both in Vote Leave 2015-16 and government 2019-20, I brought in some brilliant young women to key roles. Boris, like many men in politics/government, struggled to listen to them. As one woman who knows Boris extremely well and has worked very closely with him said to me last year, ‘he can’t take women seriously, he can’t help staring at tits and talking like we’re idiots’. He will massively struggle with a woman opponent and he is already very vulnerable with women under ~50.

Nandy is actually from Greater Manchester, where her Wigan seat is, not the Midlands, but presumably Cummings knows that. As his tweets about his article show, he has discounted another woman who ran for the Labour leadership is does come from the Midlands.

4.42pm BST

Starmer says plan A 'failing' because government letting vaccine wall 'crumble'

Sir Keir Starmer has said the government’s plan A is “failing”. He said the government should respond by beefing up the booster vaccination programme, aiming for 500,000 vaccines to be delivered a day.

Echoing what Jonathan Ashworth said in the Commons earlier (see 11.48am) , Starmer said:

The government said that the vaccine would be the security wall against the virus and now the government is letting that wall crumble.

We’ve seen those that most need it not able to get the jab they need. Only. I think, 17% of children have got the vaccine. And the booster programme has slowed down so much that at this rate we’re not going to complete it until spring of next year.

So the government needs to change these, it needs to get a grip. I think it needs to drive those numbers up to at least 500,000 vaccines a day. And that can be done, I think, by using community pharmacists ... pop-up centres for vaccines, and mobilising those retired health workers as we did before.

Asked if it was time for plan B, Starmer said asking about plan A or plan B was the wrong focus. He went on:

The question we need to ask is why is plan A failing? And it’s failing because the government has allowed that wall of the vaccine to crumble.

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Keir Starmer. Photograph: BBC News

Updated at 4.47pm BST

4.29pm BST

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Boris Johnson joining schoolchildren planing seeds for trees during a visit to Crumlin Intergrated primary school in Northern Ireland today. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

4.21pm BST

UK records more than 50,000 daily Covid cases for first time in three months

The government’s Covid dashboard has just been updated, and it shows that there have been 52,009 new coronavirus cases. That is the highest daily total on this measure, and the first time the daily tally has topped 50,000, for more than three months.

Daily new cases were last at this level on 17 July, when 54,674 were recorded.

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Covid dashboard. Photograph: Gov.UK

Updated at 4.28pm BST

3.43pm BST

Minister says she will investigate why people are having problems booking booster appointments

Some readers have been in touch to say that, even though the government is saying people can book a booster vaccine appointment six months after their second jab without having to wait to be asked (see 10.08am) , in practice that is not possible. In the Commons the Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper made the same point.

Speaking in the Commons, where, bizarrely, the vaccines minister Maggie Throup delivered a statement on Covid despite answering a UQ on the exactly the same topic earlier in the day, Cooper said:

Many of my constituents are absolutely desperate to get their third jabs and their boosters.

The minister said that if their invitation hasn’t arrived that they can book on the national booking service or call 199, but that is simply not working.

When they get onto the national booking service it says that they’re not eligible if they haven’t received an invitation letter, and if they call 119, 119 is telling them that it can’t override the system. So will the minister please urgently look into this and fix the system?

Throup said she would look into this. “If there is a problem with the system, we will get it fixed,” she added.

3.31pm BST

Johnson says no need for 'plan B' because Covid cases not rising beyond expectations

Boris Johnson has recorded an interview for broadcasters in Northern Ireland. Here are the key points.

  • Johnson insisted that there was no need for the government to move to ‘plan B’ because Covid cases were not rising beyond expectations. Asked why plan B was not being triggered now, he said:

We are continuing with the plan we set out in July. We are watching the numbers very carefully every day.

The numbers of infections are high but we are within the parameters of what the predictions were, what Spi-M [modelling group] and the others said we would be at this stage given the steps we are taking. We are sticking with our plan.

He also said the position going into the winter was “incomparably better” than it was 12 months ago.

  • He urged people to get their booster vaccines, saying that was the most important thing people could do.
  • He said any problems with the booster rollout were caused by people not coming forward, not by a shortage of vaccines. He said:

There’s certainly no shortage of supply. We’ve got the jabs. We’ve got huge quantities of vaccine, of Pfizer, and AstraZeneca but Pfizer is the one that we’re using for the for booster. Come forward and get it when you’re when your time comes. It’s a demand issue; we really urge people to come and do it.

  • He would not comment on whether the government is considering shortening the time required between the second dose and the booster vaccine. Jeremy Hunt has proposed this. (See 12.09pm.)
  • Johnson said that he did not think the Northern Ireland protocol was “coherent with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement” and that it needed to be changed “pretty fast”.
  • He confirmed that he wanted to stop veterans being put on trial over historic abuses in Northern Ireland. He said he wanted a solution “that brings people together, allows people to grieve, but also allows people to move on”. But he did not say any more about when the government would try to legislate for its highly controversial amnesty plan announced earlier in the year.
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Boris Johnson. Photograph: Sky News

Updated at 3.58pm BST

3.04pm BST

Coffey unveils plan to make pension funds 'superpower in fight against climate change'

Pension funds will be required to set out how their investment strategies support the fight against climate change under new government proposals, PA Media reports. Thérèse Coffey , the work and pensions secretary, said in a speech that regulations would be amended so trustees have to explain how their investments align with the Paris agreement’s commitment to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Coffey said that with total assets of £2tn the UK’s occupational pension schemes had huge power to channel capital into the infrastructure needed to move to net zero emissions. She went on:

With the capital clout to drive investment in things like green infrastructure and technology, pension schemes can become a superpower in the fight against climate change.

This new metric will be a powerful method of communicating in a simple and straightforward way a scheme’s progress in managing the transition to net zero and how exposed members’ savings are to risks relating to climate change.

These measures may seem techie but they are transformational, placing pension schemes further at the heart of our response to climate change and the transition to net zero.

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Thérèse Coffey. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Updated at 3.18pm BST

2.56pm BST

At his news conference yesterday Sajid Javid, the health secretary, made the headlines when he said Covid cases in the UK could rise to 100,000 per day. But Dr Chris Smith , a virologist who lectures at Cambridge University, told the BBC earlier that the UK is probably already close to that number, because around half of cases are asymptomatic. He said:

So probably, with detected cases at 50,000, we’re probably already close to 100,000 cases a day anyway, we just don’t know about lots of them.

We are looking very hard, we’re doing more than a million tests a day now, but probably we do have really high levels bordering on that sort of number at the moment.

2.42pm BST

The UK Health Security Agency , which has replaced Public Health England, has published its latest weekly Covid surveillance report. Here are some of the key findings.

2.36pm BST

Church leaders have come together to deliver a message of reconciliation at a cross-community service to mark the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland, PA Media reports. PA says:

Boris Johnson and Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney were among dignitaries who attended the service at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh.

The event, titled A Service of Reflection and Hope, was organised by the leaders of the main churches.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis, First Minister Paul Givan, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, UUP leader Doug Beattie, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance leader Naomi Long also attended the service.

Sinn Féin did not send a representative.

The Queen had been set to attend but was unable to travel after she fell ill.

The sermon was delivered by the president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Dr Sahr Yambasu.

Originally from Sierra Leone, he is the first African-born leader of one of Ireland’s main churches.

He said he hoped the event could help people in Northern Ireland to choose a way forward which is mutually beneficial for everyone.

He said: “Today, we are marking a point in our history. We have come a long way - not just a century but centuries. During that time, people have cared for one another and made efforts to build community.

“But we have also been blighted by sectarian divisions, terrible injustices, destructive violence and by win-lose political attitudes.

“So, this service provides us with an opportunity to give thanks and, also, lament; to imagine what could be and to choose the way forward that can be mutually beneficial.”

Although unionists have been keen to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland this year, it was created by the partition of Ireland and nationalists have less positive views of the anniversary. Kevin Meagher explains this well in his very good new history of Northern Ireland, What a Bloody Awful Country . Meagher, special adviser to Shaun Woodward when he was Northern Ireland secretary, describes Northern Ireland as “a masterclass in failed statecraft” whose creation led to a 50-30-20 century - 50 years of unionist dominance and Catholic oppression, 30 years of violence, and 20 years of stop-start progress.

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Boris Johnson at the service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh earlier today. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Updated at 2.54pm BST

2.16pm BST

At his news conference yesterday Sajid Javid, the health secretary, implied that it was up to individuals to act to bring Covid cases under control, by getting booster vaccines and by acting responsibly. On the World at One, Prof Robert West , a professor of health psychology and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), which is effectively a Sage subcommittee, said he did not think this message would be effective. He explained:

I think people will be a bit suspicious and think, ‘Hang on a minute, what about you? What is the government doing because it’s not just about us it’s about everyone taking responsibility and that does include the government.’

West also said he thought it was important for MPs to be seen wearing masks. Referring to the sight of MPs not wearing masks in the Commons, he said:

Actually people who are ambivalent, it gives them a kind of excuse if you like to say, ‘If they’re not doing it why should I do it?’

It’s about leadership. And politicians often talk to members of the public and sports personalities and so on about setting a right example for the public, and I do think it behoves them to do the same thing.

Updated at 2.23pm BST

1.16pm BST

Rees-Mogg snubs Javid's call for Tory MPs to set better example on mask wearing

Yesterday Sajid Javid , the health secretary, said Tory MPs should be more willing to wear masks. He was responding to a question at his press conference about why most Conservative MPs refuse to wear masks in the Commons chamber, even when the benches are crowded. Javid conceded that the questioner had a point, and he said MPs should be “setting an example as private individuals as well”.

While Conservative MPs have mostly refused to wear masks in the chamber in recent weeks, on the oppostion benches mask wearing is commonplace.

At business questions this morning Pete Wishart , the SNP spokesman, said that behaviour of Tory MPs in this regard was “comic”. He said that four of the 14 Conservatives in the chamber at the time were wearing masks (earlier in the day the proportion was even higher) , which he said was more than normal, but he challenged Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, to accept that Javid was right.

But Rees-Mogg essentially rejected Javid’s proposal. He told Wishart:

There is no advice to wear face masks in workplaces. The advice on crowded spaces is with crowded spaces with people that you don’t know. We on this side know each other.

Now, it may be that [Wishart] doesn’t like mixing with his own side, wants to keep himself in his personal bubble. He may find the other members of the SNP – who I normally find extraordinarily charming – he may not take this catholic view of his [colleagues] ... But we on this side have a more convivial fraternal spirit, and for our calling the guidance of Her Majesty’s government.

Earlier, when Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow leader of the Commons, raised the same point, Rees-Mogg said that at the Labour party conference people were not wearing masks. He particularly cited the lack of mask wearing at the Daily Mirror conference party, and claimed this was evidence that “masks are worn more by socialists when there are television cameras around than when they are not going to be seen”.

UPDATE: At the morning lobby briefing Downing Street sided with Jacob Rees-Mogg rather than Sajid Javid on this issue. Asked if the PM agreed with Javid about the need for MPs to wear masks in the Commons chamber, the PM’s spokesman said:

I haven’t spoken to the prime minister about this today, obviously he’s over in Northern Ireland all day. It remains the case that it’s a matter of personal judgment for all individuals on wearing a mask.

We have very clear guidance which sets out that people are recommended to wear face coverings in crowded, enclosed spaces where they come into contact with people they do not normally meet.

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Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photograph: Michael Mayhew/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Updated at 2.47pm BST

12.45pm BST

No 10 says government science advisers have not formally requested move to plan B

At the Downing Street lobby briefing the prime minister’s spokesman said the government’s science advisers have not formally requested a move to the plan B measures in the winter Covid plan.

Asked if Prof Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, or Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, have called for the activation of plan B, the spokesman said:

They are independent and I can’t speak for them. If you are asking me if they have formally requested that change to move to plan B, they have not.

I was not listening to the briefing today - I’ve taken the quote from PA Media - but it seems the word “formally’ is quite important in that sentence. Government scientists have made no secret of their preference for a precautionary approach (see 9.44am) , although Whitty and Vallance have also always been scrupulous in accepting that policy decisions are ultimately a matter for elected politicians, not expert officials.

The spokesman also said the government listened carefully to organisations like the NHS Confederation and the British Medical Association which have both called for the implementation of a plan B. He said:

Whilst we listen to them carefully, we don’t always agree with the positions they set out.

We listen to a range of experts - including Sage, CMO (chief medical officer) and CSA (chief scientific adviser) advice - and consider that in the whole when considering the needs to protect lives and livelihoods.

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10 Downing Street. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

12.31pm BST

Later MPs will hold a general debate on Cop26. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, says she will be saying the government must go much further and faster to reduce emissions.

Earlier campaigners handed in a petition at Downing Street highlighting the key demands from the Zero Hour campaign on the climate crisis.

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Environmental campaigners handing in a petition at Downing Street earlier highlighting three key demands for Cop26.

Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

12.20pm BST

The LSE has published new research about the reasons for vaccine hesitancy amongst minority ethnic groups. “Lower rates of vaccination are due to failures of the government and the media in establishing trust with people from minority ethnic communities,” the report says, perhaps predictably.

What may be most interesting is what the report says about policy options that might make a difference. Offering people a choice of vaccine would work best, it suggests. It says:

We found little evidence to support the existing policies that have been used to overcome vaccine hesitancy in minority ethnic communities, such as promoting vaccination through community or religious leaders and providing vaccines at community centres or places of worship. In fact, those who were vaccine hesitant had lower levels of trust in community and religious organisations than the other survey participants and were also less likely to be politically engaged.

Finally, we asked participants how various policies might change their attitudes towards vaccination, ranging from giving people the choice of which of the available vaccines to take, to providing financial incentives and making it a mandatory condition for continued employment. We found that policies such as mandatory vaccination and financial incentives had polarising effects on our vaccine hesitant respondents – some reported that such policies would convince them to take the vaccine, but higher numbers said that such policies would fuel their distrust and further decrease their likelihood of getting vaccinated. The most promising of the policies we asked about was providing a choice regarding which of the available vaccines to take. Given this choice, a fifth of vaccine-hesitant respondents reported they would take it.

12.09pm BST

And here are some more points from the Covid UQ in the Commons earlier.

  • Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative chair of the Commons health committee, said people should get booster vaccines after five months, not after six months . He said:

At its peak in the spring we were jabbing 400,000 people a day. Now it’s less than 200,000 people a day.

If you look at the higher hospitalisations, cases and death rates, compared to countries like France and Germany, the heart of it is not actually things like mask wearing and Covid passports, it is their higher vaccine immunity ...

Does it really matter when it’s only nine weeks until the Christmas holidays if someone has their booster jab after five months? And should we not look at whether there should be flexibility in that decision so we can get more people in more quickly for their booster jabs?

In response Maggie Throup , the minister for vaccines, said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation were advising that six months should be the minimum gap between the second jab and the booster.

  • Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, criticised Sajid Javid, the health secretary, for making a statement about how MPs should be wearing masks at his news conference last night, not in the Commons. Hoyle said:

I will work with any secretary of state or any minister to avoid this embarrassing situation where they think it is more appropriate to brief the media rather than this House. It won’t happen. If it does, we will see more urgent questions, the government ministers will get blocked.

It is not what I want. I want to work together but I want due respect for the members who are elected to this chamber.

As my colleague Jessica Elgot reports, Hoyle seems to have missed the point that Javid only made this comment in response to a question from the FT’s Sebastian Payne.

  • At least two Conservative MPs stated their scepticism about the value of masks. In one question Andrew Murrison complained about “an obsession with non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as mask wearing”, saying that vaccines were the best way to combat the threat posed by Covid. And Sir Desmond Swayne said masks containted gaps that “that are 5,000 times bigger than the virus”.
  • Throup defended the fact that, unlike her predecessor, Nadhim Zahawi, she does not attend cabinet. When Jeremy Hunt suggested she should, Throup replied: “I have regular meetings with the prime minister and the prime minister takes the vaccine rollout extremely seriously, as does the secretary of state.”
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Maggie Throup. Photograph: Parliament TV

11.48am BST

Labour demands 500,000-a-day booster jabs target, saying 'wall of defence is crumbling'

Jeremy Hunt made his comments earlier (see 11.12am) during a Commons urgent question on Covid. During the exchanges Jonathan Ashworth , the shadow health secretary, said the government should be aiming to get booster vaccinations up to 500,000 a day. He told MPs:

On current trends we won’t complete boosters until March 2022. Instead of doing just 165,000 booster jabs a day, why not set a commitment to do 500,000 jabs a day and get this programme completed by Christmas, mobilising pop-up clinics and making better use of community pharmacies?

The third dose for immuno-compromised has been described as chaotic by charities. Why not allow them to use walk-in centres?

Despite around 10,000 infections a day in children, vaccination for children is only 17% done, a stuttering rollout falling behind other nations ...

With infections running so high, the secretary of state needs to stop vacillating and get vaccinating. The wall of defence is crumbling. With this virus you have to get ahead of it before it gets ahead of you.

Getting booster vaccines up to 500,000 a day is also one of the targets proposed by Tony Blair’s thinktank. (See 10.27am.)

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Jonathan Ashworth on ITV’s Peston last night. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/REX/Shutterstock

Updated at 12.14pm BST

11.29am BST

English pupils missed 219m days of in-person schooling in spring, DfE figures show

Pupils in England missed 219m days of in-person education in the spring term due to Covid, PA Media reports. PA says:

Historically, around 5% of school is missed due to absence during the spring term, but in spring this year 57.5% of sessions (half a day) were recorded as missed due to circumstances relating to coronavirus.

This represents 219m school days, according to Department for Education (DfE) data out today.

For the majority of the spring term in England, students - except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils - were told to learn remotely until 8 March.

A further 3.3% of sessions were missed during the spring term due to absence - the equivalent of an additional 12.5m days on top of the 219m days where pupils did not attend due to Covid.

11.23am BST

The campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice is also calling for the government to move to a plan B now. In a statement Hannah Brady, its spokesperson, said:

This time last year, we were pleading with the government to learn lessons from the loss of our loved ones in the first wave. Instead the same mistakes were repeated. Scientific advice calling for public health measures to be put in place were ignored, which led to infections running rampant, tens of thousands dying and the NHS becoming overwhelmed, followed by a lengthy lockdown and severe economic damage.

The advice being given to the government this time around is clear: move to plan B, to protect the NHS and save lives. So why is this being ignored yet again? Having seen the horrific consequences, how can they risk repeating the same mistakes this year?

11.12am BST

In the Commons Jeremy Hunt , the Conservative chair of the Commons health committee, has offered his own proposal for speeding up the vaccine booster rollout, my colleague Jessica Elg ot reports.

11.05am BST

Farmers should be 'very worried' about New Zealand trade deal, says NFU president

Last night the government announced a free trade deal with New Zealand. The Department for International Trade’s news release is here, and here is my colleague Aubrey Allegretti’ s news story.

Related: UK strikes trade deal with New Zealand – but it may add nothing to GDP

In an interview on the Today programme, Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers Union, said she could not see how British farmers would benefit from the deal. She said it would lead them having to compete with New Zealand farmers not bound by the same standards, which she said was “extremely unfair”. She told the programme:

I think we should be very worried about it. It will have massive impact because we have fully liberalised our marketplace, not just on lamb but on dairy ...

What British farmers need to know is, instead of government repeating and repeating the refrain that these deals will be good for British agriculture, our government must now explain how these deals will tangibly benefit UK farmers, and that question hasn’t been answered ...

I cannot see what is in it for our farmers ... [The deal] looks extremely unfair from what I can see at the moment.

Batters said the same problem applied to the outline free trade agreement already agreed with Australia. She said:

It’s very clear with Australia that we are going to open our markets to the rest of the world, and we are not going to expect the same high rules on animal welfare [and] environmental protection that we have here. That will put farmers out of business.

There is more about the NFU’s objections to the New Zealand deal on its website here .

The Conservative party used to be seen as solidly pro-farming. But these comments, following Boris Johnson effectively joking about the plight of pig farmers at the Tory conference, shows that assumption no longer applies.

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Minette Batters. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

Updated at 12.19pm BST

10.35am BST

Secondary school pupils and staff in Suffolk are to be asked to wear face masks again. Explaining the decision, Stuart Keeble, Suffolk county council ’s director of public health, told the Today programme this morning that the virus was “really working its way through that younger population at the moment”. He said he hoped masks would enable more pupils to stay in school. He said:

We have had around 7,300 pupils test positive in the last 28 days. If we can keep transmission rates down, we can also keep more pupils in school as well while the vaccine is being run out for 12 to 15-year-olds.

10.27am BST

Blair says ministers should act 'with urgency now' to avoid need for further lockdowns

The former prime minister Tony Blair , whose thinktank has spent much of the pandemic producing policy papers in the manner of a shadow government, has joined those calling for a beefed-up version of plan B to be implemented now.

The government’s own plan B involves three definite measures (telling the public to behave more cautiously, mandating vaccine passports for some settings, and mandating face coverings for some settings) and one potential measure (telling people to work from home for a limited measure).

In a paper published today (pdf), the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change backs making face coverings mandatory in crowded public spaces now, and says mandatory Covid passes should also be considered.

But mostly the report advises measures that would improve vaccine coverage. Blair said:

No one wants to see more restrictions on how we go about our lives. Everyone hopes that the damage of Covid-19 is substantially behind us even as we battle its legacy. However, the worst that could happen is that we go back into anything approaching the lockdowns we experienced during the past 18 months.

We’re not saying this will happen. But the risk is there now. Once well ahead of the rest of Europe, we’re now behind Germany France and Italy in terms of cases and even vaccinations.

So, from an abundance of caution, a sensible sentiment given the history of Covid-19, we believe the government should rapidly and decisively accelerate measures to give us the best possible chance of avoiding the disease spiralling again.

These measures ... are based on evidence from round the world as well as our own experience of what works to cut the spread of Covid-19. But we need to act with urgency now.

The report makes 12 proposals. Here they are:

1) Adopt a target of administering 500,000 boosters a day.

2) Reactivate the vaccine infrastructure used in mid-2021, including staff and settings.

3) Use AstraZeneca as a booster.

4) Make vaccinating 50 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds by 1 December a government priority.

5) Roll out a clear, clarifying government communications campaign that shows the safety and efficacy of vaccines for children.

6) Make approving vaccination for under-12s a priority.

7) Provide clear guidance on vaccines for pregnant women.

8) Provide much-needed reassurance for pregnant women through safe-space vaccination venues and a 24/7 helpline run by midwives.

9) Offer priority bookings for pregnant women.

10) Urgently explore the option of introducing a Covid Pass, drawing on best practice from countries currently using one, to ensure everyone attending a mass event has been fully vaccinated or at least received a recent negative test

11) Keep free, NHS-supplied lateral-flow tests readily available for the duration of the global pandemic, given their proven effectiveness.

12) Reinstate mandatory face coverings for crowded indoor public spaces.

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Tony Blair Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Updated at 1.23pm BST

10.08am BST

People told to book booster jab without waiting for invitation

In his interviews this morning Edward Argar , the health minister, also confirmed that people in England no longer needed to wait to be invited to get their booster coronavirus vaccine if the right amount of time had passed. He said:

We’ve made a change, which is it’s not just about waiting to be invited.

If you get to the six months plus one week, go on the national booking system and book yourself in.

Related: Who can get a Covid booster jab in England?

Updated at 11.22am BST

10.01am BST

The Daily Telegraph today claims officials are now considering a “plan C” in case the Covid situtation deterioriates badly. In its story it reports:

Last month, ministers published a Covid “plan B” setting out restrictions, such as mandatory vaccine passports, face coverings and advice to work from home, which might be introduced if the NHS is deemed to be under “unsustainable pressure”.

But The Telegraph has learned that officials are discussing still more draconian steps, including a return to banning visits between households, if pressures on hospitals worsen.

Such measures were in place for much of last year, with people able to meet in pubs and restaurants once they had reopened, but not visit each other’s homes ...

One Whitehall source said: “The focus is very much on measures that can be taken without a major economic impact, so keeping shops, pubs and restaurants open but looking at other ways to reduce the risks.”

In an interview this morning Edward Argar , the health minister, said the story was “without foundation”. Asked about the report, he told Sky News:

That’s not something I’m aware of, I checked it out and I’m told that is not a story with foundation.

Of course, as a government, you look at - as we’ve done with our plan B - alternatives and ways that you might, if you needed to, start easing that pressure.

The specifics of that and what was mooted in it as I understand it, as I only glanced at it I’m afraid on my way in this morning, about limiting household mixing, things like that ... is that it isn’t something that is being actively considered.

Of course, whether or not a policy is being considered by government is often better seen as a spectrum assessment than a straightforward yes/no; officials often consider worst-case contingency options that never end up as proposals for ministers.

9.44am BST

Minister refuses to deny government science advisers favour moving to plan B now

Good morning. At his news conference yesterday Sajid Javid, the health secretary, stressed the role individuals must play in controlling coronavirus, urging people to get booster vaccinations and to act responsibly. But there are many who are saying the government should be doing more now too, and the British Medical Association has become the latest body to call for plan B to be implemented immediately. My colleague Nadeem Badshah has the story.

Related: British Medical Association says ‘time is now’ for Covid plan B

But are the government’s main scientific advisers also in favour of a move to plan B now? They, of course, must speak for themselves, but it is not hard to guess where their instincts lie. In July, when the government announced the full opening up in England, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said opening up should proceed more slowly. In September, when the government published its plan for winter (including a minimalist plan B, which is similar to plan A in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), Sage called for plan B-style measures to be implemented immediately. And at that point Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, stressed that it was always important to “go early” when introducing measures to control rising cases.

On the Today programme this morning Edward Argar , a health minister, was asked if the government was now ignoring advice from Vallance and others. Argar at first denied that, arguing that the government listened to a range of advice, Argar said. But when asked directly by Nick Robinson if Vallance was telling ministers it was right not to implement plan B now, Argar would not say that. He went on:

What we have to make a judgment call on is when is the right time to do plan B, and whether it’s the right time to do Plan B, and I can entirely understand what you, on behalf of your listeners, would want to say, ‘What is the binary moment ... [that] triggers doing that?’ Sadly it’s not that simple because there’s a range of considerations and factors that need to be taken into account, one of which of course is that pressure on the NHS.

In an earlier interview, on Sky News, Argar was also asked if the government was following Vallance’s advice to “go early”. Argar replied:

I think what Patrick’s saying there is you’ve got to look ahead ...

I think what Patrick is saying is always look to the future, consider when is the right moment to act ... I don’t think we’re at that point yet.

But actually that isn’t really what Vallance has been saying at all; Vallance’s argument is that the right moment to act is normally before it is considered necessary.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: The Department for Education publishes school absence figures for England for autumn 2020 and spring 2021.

10am: Prof Sir Ian Diamdon, head of the Office for National Statistics, gives evidence to the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee.

11am: The Department of Health and Social Care publishes its weekly test and trace figures.

11am: Boris Johnson attends a service at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh to commemorate the centenary of Northern Ireland.

12.45pm: Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, gives a speech on how pensions can contribute to net zero.

Also, the Welsh government is today publishing its health and social care winter plan.

I expect to be covering Covid a lot today, but for wider coronavirus developments, do read our global live blog.

Related: Coronavirus live: UK not seeing ‘unsustainable pressure’ on health service; India administers billionth jab

I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

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Edward Argar. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Updated at 10.05am BST

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