Wednesday briefing: ‘Plan B’ to protect NHS from winter surge |

Top story: Masks and vaccine passports may return

Greetings from me, Warren Murray, on this first Wednesday of the week.

Between 2,000 and 7,000 people a day could be hospitalised with Covid in England next month unless the government urgently implements a “basket of measures”, government scientific advisers have warned. Boris Johnson has confirmed that Covid passports, the return of mandatory mask-wearing and advice to work from home are only the government’s “plan B” if the NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed.

Modellers on the Sage committee expect cases to rise in the coming months after almost all restrictions were lifted this summer. Even though 81% of UK adults are double-jabbed, nearly 6 million are unvaccinated and vulnerable to the highly transmissible Delta variant now that most Covid restrictions have been lifted. But if enacted early enough, even light-touch measures could be sufficient to keep infections flat and prevent a damaging fresh wave of hospitalisations, Sage experts say.

The recommendations were published as the health secretary, Sajid Javid, set out the government’s autumn and winter Covid plan. He said “plan A” included pressing ahead with booster jabs for the over-50s and clinically vulnerable people, expanding vaccination to 12- to 15-year-olds, and continuing to advise the public to meet outdoors where possible and wear masks in enclosed spaces.

Newsom safe – California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, appears to have prevailed in a recall election. While the race was called by the Associated Press in the last couple of hours, the vote count is not yet final, and election officials have 30 days to count all the ballots.

Gavin Newsom, the California governor
Gavin Newsom, the California governor. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

Newsom, a Democrat governor in a Democrat-voting state, found himself having to fight to retain office after a Republican-led recall gained steam amid the worst of the pandemic, fuelled by frustrations over school and business closures. His most popular challenger was the rightwing radio host Larry Elder.

Funding threat to rebel Tories – Government whips are accused of threatening to withhold funding from constituencies of rebel Conservative MPs if they don’t back the government in key votes – raising questions over whether town deal funding is being fairly allocated. Some backbenchers have also claimed that would-be rebels affected by an upcoming parliamentary boundary review were warned they might not automatically be selected elsewhere; while others might lose party funding to retain their marginal seats. Caroline Slocock from the Civil Exchange thinktank said it was “shocking if government whips are promising to hand out public money, or deny it, to their MPs to buy votes. Public funds should be allocated following clear criteria based on need, with due process.”

Midweek catch-up

> Boris Johnson has been condemned for suggesting Britain could become “the Saudi Arabia” of penal policy under Priti Patel, the home secretary. Saudi Arabia beheads people, and being homosexual can attract the death penalty.

> Only 13 of the 100 largest UK-listed employers have revealed their ethnicity pay gaps, sparking fresh calls for the government to make reporting of racial earnings disparities mandatory.

> Even staunch defenders of traditional whaling in the Faroe Islands have condemned as excessive the killing on Sunday of nearly 1,500 dolphins. The annual hunt known as the “Grind” was already controversial but the Sea Shepherd group has called it “the largest single killing of dolphins or pilot whales in the islands’ history” and proponents of the tradition disowned it.

> The most senior US general took steps to prevent Donald Trump from “going rogue” and launching a nuclear war or an attack on China, according to excerpts of an eagerly awaited new book by the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

> A fake generational war over the climate crisis has distorted public thinking and political strategy, when in fact older generations are just as worried as younger people, according to new research. But the younger generations are more likely to say there is no point changing their behaviour because “it won’t make a difference anyway”, King’s College London and New Scientist magazine found.

‘I have nothing to lose’ – Afghan women around the world have taken to social media wearing traditional colourful clothes, using the hashtag #DoNotTouchMyClothes. The protest is a response to a “demonstration” staged by the Taliban at Kabul University where about 300 women appeared in all-black garments covering their faces, hands and feet – the sort of dress previously never seen across Afghanistan.

Sara Wahedi, Peymana Assad, and Sana Safi who posted images of themselves in colourful traditional Afghan clothing on social media.
Sara Wahedi, Peymana Assad and Sana Safi who posted images of themselves in colourful traditional Afghan clothing on social media. Photograph: Twitter

The Taliban have announced women will not be allowed into high-ranking government positions, and schools and universities must be gender-segregated. Despite the Taliban declaring protests are banned without its approval, women in Kabul have pledged to continue their demonstrations. Samira, a Kabul University student, said: “I have nothing to lose … Even if I risk my life, even if they kill me, it’s better than being silenced.” It comes as the Taliban-installed governor in Helmand province asks for the west to come back to Afghanistan, but with aid money instead of guns. He is photographed for our report with an assault rifle lying on his desk.

Outer office – A Japanese housebuilder is tackling working from home by marketing a tiny office outbuilding that is 91cm wide and 1.8 metres long. The so-called Hanare Zen is equipped with power sockets, a counter-type desk and very little else. It can be constructed adjacent to houses in two days.

The Hanare Zen office outbuilding made by Japanese builder KI Star Real Estate
The Hanare Zen office outbuilding made by Japanese builder KI Star Real Estate. Photograph: KI Star Real Estate

Intended customers are those struggling to work in cramped homes during the pandemic. In Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, the Tokyu Railway Company has converted old train carriages and ticket kiosks into shared office spaces.

Today in Focus podcast: Who pays for social care repair?

The government’s plan to fix the ailing social care system passed into law this week. Who will benefit most – and who will pick up the bill?

Today in Focus

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Lunchtime read: Protein builds muscular profits

Protein has gone from a niche bodybuilding supplement to a mainstream obsession – and is now added to a huge range of food and drink products. What led to the sudden growth of this multimillion-dollar industry?

Woman eating protein bar
Protein bar sales have taken off. Photograph: urbazon/Getty Images


Jesse Lingard’s late error gifted Young Boys a 2-1 Champions League win over Manchester United after Cristiano Ronaldo had opened the scoring in Bern. At Stamford Bridge, Romelu Lukaku headed home in the second half to get Chelsea past an awkward Zenit Petersburg 1-0, while Robert Lewandowski scored twice for Bayern Munich as the German side eased to a 3-0 victory and gave Barcelona a reality check at Camp Nou. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp has described Emma Raducanu as “the talent of the century” and admitted he was overwhelmed by the 18-year-old’s sporting reaction to winning the US Open.

Track and field history was made in Zagreb on Tuesday night as Francine Niyonsaba became the first athlete who has identified herself as having a difference of sex development (DSD) to officially break a world record. A wretched 24 hours for UK athletics continued when CJ Ujah’s B sample confirmed his positive drug test at the Tokyo Olympics. The Rugby Football Union has confirmed its intention to bid to host the 2031 World Cup as part of a long-term vision also designed to ensure England are consistently in the top two in the rankings. And Carissa Moore clinched her fifth world title and Gabriel Medina his third at the World Surf League Finals in California, where the sighting of an eight-foot shark delayed competition.


Asian shares have fallen as weak Chinese economic data reinforced worries about slowing growth locally and globally. Data out of China shows businesses grappling with the impact of lockdowns following Covid-19 outbreaks, supply bottlenecks and high raw materials costs. Overnight on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 0.84% while the S&P 500 fell 0.57% and the Nasdaq Composite was down 0.45%. Barely a tenth of respondents to Bank of America’s monthly fund manager survey expect a stronger global economy in the coming months. The FTSE looks like opening fairly flat while the pound is worth $1.380 and €1.168 at time of writing.

The papers

In the Guardian we lead today with “Act urgently to face up to 7,000 a day in hospital, scientists tell PM”. The Mirror says “Plan for the worst” in relation to the government’s “plan B” involving more lockdowns and vaccine passports. “Surprise – it’s back to panic stations!” is the Mail’s assessment but the Express can be depended upon for a booster shot: “Mr Sensible! We reserve the right to tighten rules”.

Guardian front page, 15 September 2021
Guardian front page, 15 September 2021. Photograph: Guardian

The i has “PM’s plan B to stop new lockdown”. “A Covid winter warner” – that’s the Metro which, like others, carries a front-page picture of Emma Raducanu making a smash at the Met Gala in New York. “Spectre of winter lockdown” says the Telegraph whose Met Gala picture is of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a statement outfit.

The Times focuses on the Sage advice: “Go hard, go early to curb winter crisis, Johnson told”. It also covers the banning of the Chinese ambassador from parliament. And the Financial Times leads with “Johnson forced to delay Brexit border checks on EU goods” – whoever would have predicted such a thing?

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