Overhauled No.10 operation 'flunked first test' amid confusion over Covid policy

Criticism comes after a row between the Treasury and DHSC over ending Covid restrictions forced the PM to delay a meeting to sign off the plans
The Treasury and DHSC were reportedly at loggerheads over the plans. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Adam Payne

23 Feb 2022

The revamped No.10 operation is accused of being in chaos after a row between the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care over plans to do away with Covid restrictions forced the prime minister to delay a cabinet meeting where the plans were due to be signed off.

Cabinet ministers were expected to meet at 10am yesterday to agree on the government's heavily-trailed plans to "live" with Covid-19.

The government is scrapping all legal coronavirus restrictions in England from Thursday and free tests will no longer be available to the general public after the end of March under the plans, announced yesterday afternoon.

Two government sources told CSW sister title PoliticsHome yesterday that the meeting had unexpectedly been postponed until later in the day, with Downing Street later confirming that it would now take place in the afternoon afternoon over Zoom.

The meeting was postponed just ten minutes before it was set to get underway and some ministers were already in10 Downing Street waiting for it to begin, according to The Times.

A Downing Street spokesperson said it had been delayed due to briefings on the Ukraine crisis and refused to comment on widespread reports that the delay was down to a disagreement between chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid over funding relating to the revised regulations.

Javid and Sunak were at loggerheads over how much money DHSC would get for Covid testing, with the Health Secretary thought to have been pushing for additional funding on top of the department's existing budget. Following the postponement of this morning's meeting, a source close to Javid confirmed that they had not yet reached an agreement, despite Johnson intending to get the plans signed off at cabinet ahead of his Commons statement this afternoon. 

Conservative MPs expressed disbelief that ministers had not reached an agreement on this element of the government's "living with Covid" plans prior to this morning's cabinet meeting.

A senior Tory who backed Johnson in the 2019 leadership contest told PoliticsHome: “This was one of the first major tests for the new No.10 operation that was supposed to address the concerns of Conservative MPs, but they have flunked it."

Speaking ahead of the PM's announcment of the restrictions, they added: “We remain ready to judge the content of the living with Covid plan in good faith, but the fact that the cabinet was not only bounced into a meeting at the last minute, but then had their meeting delayed due to a long-running disagreement inside government that hadn’t been resolved, goes to prove that No.10 is still not up to the job".

Another Conservative MP and ex-health minister acknowledged that the question of who should continue to be eligible for free Covid tests was tricky a one — but one that should have been resolved before the cabinet meeting.

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