Covid lockdown: Leak of secret plans for forced Boris Johnson to act

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Boris Johnson Johnson was catapulted into announcing a total lockdown for England last night after a whirlwind 24 hours which saw events appear to totally escape his grasp.

The Prime Minister faced the country last night to announce a four-week shutdown from Thursday until December 2, in the wake of a surge of coronavirus cases that could trigger thousands of deaths.

But the timing was not of his choosing – instead he was forced to rush out the announcement after his plans were leaked from a secret ministerial meeting on Friday.

Downing Street officials were infuriated to read details of the lockdown in the first editions of Saturday’s Daily Mail, just hours after the decision had been taken by the ‘quad’ of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Mr Hancock. 

It forced Mr Johnson to bring forward the announcement of the measure from Monday to yesterday, despite many details still being finalised.

The leak meant that the shutdown was on the front pages before the rest of the Cabinet had been told about the decision.

Cabinet Office Minister Mr Gove said today he did not leak details of the new coronavirus lockdown restrictions before the Government intended to announce them – nor did he know who he source might be. 

Mr Johnson has launched an inquiry the find the source of the leak, but Mr Gove insisted it was not him.

Asked by Andrew Marr on the BBC if he leaked the information, Mr Gove replied: ‘No.’ Asked if he knew who leaked it, he said: ‘No.’

Here is how the bombshell period in coronavirus politics played out:

Friday, October 31

PM Boris Johnson was given hard facts about real people in hospital beds, and the debate was effectively over

2pm: A senior SAGE sources briefs reporters that it is ‘not too late to save Christmas’ if a month-long lockdown is introduced. 

They call for the closure of all pubs and restaurants and venues where households mix indoors. 

It comes after a Government-led study by Imperial College London had been published showing that nearly 100,000 people in the UK are getting infected with Covid-19 every day.

The REACT-1 project – which has been swabbing tens of thousands of people every week – estimated there were around 96,000 people getting infected every day in England by October 25.

French President Emmanuel Macron  has already announced a second national lockdown until the end of November and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also announces a ‘lockdown lite’ which  is less severe but includes the closure of restaurants, gyms and theatres. 

3pm: Papers are released online from a SAGE meeting which show that advisers warned ministers on October 14 that the UK could be headed for a situation more serious than the scientists’ ‘worst case scenario’.  

They say ‘we are breaching the number of infections and hospital admissions in the Reasonable Worst Case planning scenario’ and the outlook for Covid-19’s future spread was ‘concerning’ if no action was taken.

The SAGE papers warn that modelling suggests up to 74,000 people a day could be becoming infected in England alone, far beyond the worst case scenario. 

Late afternoon: The all-powerful Covid Quad committee, which has taken all the key strategic decisions during the pandemic, met in the Cabinet Office on Friday, along with 20 experts.

Boris Johnson, chairing the committee meeting, fought what one source called a ‘valiant battle’ to keep the country open, ‘arguing with himself’ and endorsing many of his Chancellor’s hawkish warnings about the economic carnage it would entail. 

Every time Health Secretary Matt Hancock made his arguments in favour of the lockdown, he was supported by fellow ‘dove’ Mr Gove. 

Both Ministers were emboldened by France and Germany’s move into full lockdown. 

The Prime Minister continued to back his Chancellor, until a chilling submission by Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, which effectively condemned the country to another month of confinement. 

Early evening: Downing Street is informed that ITV political editor Robert Peston has received a ‘read-out of the whole meeting’, according to the Times.

10.30pm: No10’s plans to shut-down England for at least a month have also been leaked to the Daily Mail and are revealed when the first edition of Saturday’s paper drops.

The Mail learns that SAGE told ministers Covid-19 is spreading ‘significantly’ faster than even their original ‘worst-case scenario’ prediction.   

Downing Street is furious to read details of the lockdown in the first editions of the Saturday newspapers, hours after the decision had been taken by Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock. 

The leak means that the shutdown was on the front pages before the rest of the Cabinet had been told and sparks widespread anger among politicians and business leaders.

Saturday, October 31

7am: BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg reveals some of the information shown to the quad involves daily deaths could top 4,000

11am: Boris Johnson calls an unscheduled Cabinet briefing to update furious ministers on his plans. With just hours to go he also calls a hastily arranged live television press conference for 4pm to brief the nation about his plans.

11am: Downing Street launches an investigation to find the source of the story, amid reports that the Government had wanted to keep the plan quiet until Monday. 

Multiple Government sources sought to pin the blame on Matt Hancock by accusing him of trying to ‘bump’ the Prime Minister into announcing the lockdown before he could have second thoughts. The Health Secretary strenuously denied the claims. 

However, other sources pointed the finger at Mr Gove – the other ‘dove’ in the quad – and suggested that Mr Hancock was being made the ‘fall guy’ for the leak.

Mr Gove flatly denied the allegation this morning. 

1.30pm: Cabinet meets virtually, with the PM dialling in from Downing Street. It lasts more than an hour

2.30pm: The press conference is pushed back to 5pm, suggesting that the lockdown plans are still being hammered out and argued over by ministers.

3:40pm: Mr Peston tweets a summary of the measures Mr Johnson will be announcing at the press conference, following the Cabinet meeting.

3.58pm: The BBC’s Nick Eardly reveals similar details about what is going to be announced.  

4.50pm: The press conference is pushed back to 6.30pm.

5pm: It emerges that Mr Johnson has apologised to Conservative MPs and tells them that he will launch an inquiry to find the ‘culprit’ who leaked details of the new lockdown before his announcement.   

 Mr Johnson sends a message to Conservative MPs on WhatsApp to apologise and warn there are ‘no easy short term options’. ‘Folks – so sorry that you’ve had to hear about all this from the newspapers today,’ he wrote.

‘Let me assure you that the leak was not a No10 briefing and indeed we have launched an inquiry to catch the culprit. I had hoped to make the announcement in parliament on Monday but to avoid any further uncertainty I’ll now do a press conference from Downing Street this evening.

‘My team will make sure you have access to all the data and briefing from scientists you need in the coming days. Please speak to your whip if you have anything to feed in. 

‘I assure you we are doing what we believe is best for the country and to ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed in a way that could cost many thousands of lives.

‘There is a clear way out of this, with better medication and rapid testing – and the genuine prospect of a vaccine. Our country will recover well. But I am afraid there are no easy short term options. Best Boris.’ 

6:45pm: Boris Johnson, joined by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Patrice Vallance, finally fronts the delayed press conference.

The press conference runs for just under half an hour, cutting into the broadcast of the latest Strictly Come Dancing episode.

The broadcasters had already axed Little Mix’s talent show for a 4pm address, and when it was moved back to 5pm, a half-hour news special was put in at 4.30pm, hosted by Reeta Chakrabarti.

However, she was still presenting the programme at 7.13pm, so Mastermind was also axed.

7.14pm: Strictly contestants and production staff find out it was still going on air just seconds before the network started playing the introduction music at around 7.14pm – four minutes after the time it was originally scheduled to begin.

Sources on the show said that at one point it was expected that the show would be moved to a later day as no information had come from the scheduling department.

One said last night: ‘We had no idea what was going on. The time kept getting away from us.

‘It was total chaos. There were phone calls being made back and forth, but nobody knew what Boris and his team were doing so everyone on the Strictly team was left hanging. You can imagine the nerves backstage among the dancers.’

Fans on Twitter also poked fun at the situation. Broadcaster Matt Chorley wrote: ‘Of all the highly dangerous things this Government has done, f***ing about with the start of Strictly seems the most risky.’     

Saturday evening: 

Tory backbench lockdown hawks vent their anger at the new announcement. 

Sir Robert Syms, an ex-Tory whip, suggested that No10 had not properly ‘audited progress’ made by the three-tier system which sees restrictions with varying degrees of severity placed on individual regions.

 Sir Robert tweeted: ‘I am open to more measures [but] we have a regional approach which we have not given time to work. If we need to tweak it, fine, let’s measure what works and discard what does not. At the moment the Government is getting bounced into a change before we have audited progress.’

Desmond Swayne, the Conservative MP for New Forest West, described the move as ‘disastrous’ and accused Cabinet ministers of behaving like ‘headless chickens’.  

Mr Swayne said: ‘Lockdowns make everyone poorer and poor people even poorer. I fear more people will die sooner than they would have as a consequence of the decision.

‘In a bad flu season 80,000 people die, but we don’t behave like headless chickens.’ 

Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, told the BBC: ‘There has to be another way of doing this. If you want first world public services, you need a first world economy.’


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