Coronavirus restrictions in England could be lifted by the end of January, with the Tory party chairman saying he was “hopeful”, thanks to “encouraging signs”.
The current Plan B rules – which includes the mandatory wearing of face masks in some settings, the use of vaccine passports or negative lateral flow tests to enter some venues and working from home where possible – are due to be reviewed in 10 days time on 26 January.
Mr Dowden told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday that the “signs are encouraging” that these restrictions will be able to be lifted at this point.
“It has always been my hope that we would have the Plan B restrictions for the shortest period possible,” the Conservative Party’s chairman said.
“I’m under no doubt the kind of burdens this puts hospitality, wider business, schools and so on under, and I want us to get rid of those if we possibly can.
“The signs are encouraging but, clearly, we will wait to see the data ahead of that final decision.”
‘Promising data’ on COVID
Mr Dowden added that there is “promising data” on COVID infections and hospitalisations that give “pause for hope and optimism that we may be emerging from the worst of Omicron”.
His comments come after Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said infection levels in London, the South East and East of England are flattening off.
She said that while case numbers are still rising in more northern parts of the country, the growth rate there is slowing.
On Friday, the UK’s R (reproduction) number was estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.5, meaning that every 10 people infected with coronavirus will on average pass the disease to between 11 and 15 other people.
As it remains above 1, it means the virus is still growing rather than shrinking. But the daily growth in infections has fallen slightly.
On Saturday, the UK has recorded 81,713 COVID cases and 287 coronavirus-related deaths in the latest 24-hour period
PM carrying on ‘great for the Labour Party’
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told Sky News he could not be confident that the government were not looking to lift Plan B measures in a bid to shore up Mr Johnson’s leadership.
“If the prime minister or the health secretary from the Conservative Party is coming forward saying, ‘we’re going to remove Plan B measures’, I want to be absolutely confident they are making that decision in the national interest and not in the party interest, for party management reasons.
“I don’t have total confidence about that.”
Noting the Conservative Party’s declining approval ratings, Mr Streeting added: “I’ll make no bones about it – Boris Johnson carrying on is great for the Labour Party.”
Tory chairman ‘disgusted’ by Number 10 parties
Mr Dowden also told Sky News that he had been “angered” and “disgusted” by the reports of parties held in Downing Street and elsewhere across Whitehall at a time when COVID restrictions were in place, but that “Boris Johnson should, of course, remain as prime minister.”
It comes as Tim Loughton became the sixth Conservative MP to publicly call for Mr Johnson to quit amid the ongoing ‘partygate scandal’.
The other Tory MPs to do so are former minister Caroline Nokes, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party Douglas Ross, Sir Roger Gale, Andrew Bridgen and William Wragg.
“Of course, I don’t diminish for a second that the kind of events that we’ve seen were totally wrong – I was angered by them, my constituents were angered about them, the whole country was angered by them and it is absolutely right that the prime minister has said we’ll get to the bottom of them,” the Tory chairman said.
“I can tell you that when he responds to the House of Commons, as he has committed to do so, he will make sure that we address the kind of culture that has allowed that to happen in the first place.”
Pressed on two parties which occurred on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral where the Queen had to mourn her husband sitting alone, Mr Dowden added: “It shouldn’t have happened and it was wrong, they’ve already apologised for doing so. It was just wrong and it shouldn’t have happened.”
The Tory chairman reiterated to Sky News that senior civil servant Sue Gray is currently investigating parties held in Downing Street and across Whitehall and that actions will follow her report’s findings if necessary.
“I can tell you that the prime minister is genuinely committed, both in demonstrating his remorse and apology for what happened, but also in taking steps to ensure that we address the kind of culture in Downing Street that enabled something like that to happen, which clearly should never have happened in the first place,” he said.
Sky News presenter tells of losing daughter while Number 10 parties took place
Sky News presenter Trevor Phillips was visibly emotional telling Mr Dowden how his daughter died the same weekend parties were held in Number 10.
“We all stuck to the spirit and the letter of the rules. On the Saturday after watching the funeral of Prince Philip, I went to one of my friends’ 70th birthday party. He hired a tent, he has got loads of friends, but he hired a tent just for the six of us so that we could sit outside. He stuck to the spirit and the letter of the rules.
“At that dinner, I get a call, my daughter has collapsed. As you will know, for months she had been isolated, she was ill. By the following morning, she had died and she had stuck to the spirit and letter of the rules.
“Now, there are going to be thousands of people who have that story in their background. And if I may say so, you are in here telling me about a civil servant’s inquiry.
“That will not answer that anger. Does the prime minister really understand why people are angry?”
Noting how much Mr Phillips had “suffered during this period”, Mr Dowden added: “What I’m trying to offer to you and to your viewers who may be watching this programme is to explain to you how the government is seeking to move forward through this.
“First of all, to establish all of the facts of what happened. And then the prime minister will be held to account in parliament for what happened.”