Boris Johnson was today urged by health experts and business leaders to relax the 10-day quarantine rule for positive cases in favour of a test and release scheme to stop Omicron ‘disabling everything’.
At a press conference this afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon warned essential services could come under threat due to the number of people off work and suggested more restrictions may be needed to stop this from happening.
An analysis of official figures suggests Britain could reach up to 460,000 daily cases by Christmas Eve — forcing 2million people into isolation — if Omicron infections continue to increase as quickly as some scientists expect.
Such huge numbers could partially paralyse the country, causing huge disruption to businesses and threatening services including the NHS, police and national grid.
Today, the Fire Brigade Union said Covid cases have been ‘skyrocketing’ in the London service, claiming that almost 10% of operational firefighters have either tested positive or are self-isolating.
Meanwhile, some pubs and restaurants have already been forced to close either due to a shortage of staff or a lack of customers.
Today, a public health expert and business leader suggested staffing pressures could be eased by revisiting the current rules that require everyone who tests positive for Covid to isolate for a full 10 days.
Asked if the 10-day isolation period should be scrapped and changed to a test and release style scheme, Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘I think so.
‘The other big concern on top of rising cases and hospitalisations is that we could end up with so many people isolating at once we could run into some serious staffing issues in vital services.’
He suggested reducing the mandatory isolation period to five days and then making people take daily lateral flows.
‘Most people are not infectious for as long as 10 days, most are over their infectiousness by day five.
‘Omicron is spreading so widely now that there’s actually very little we can do to stop it at this point, but it’s crucial we keep society going.
‘Anything that reduces the harm on society and the economy without putting infected people into situations where they can infect even more people is a plus.’
Luke Johnson, a serial entrepreneur and chairman of The Bread Factory, said many businesses he has been in contact with had more than 10% of the workforce in isolation.
‘This means the economy and indeed the NHS risks grinding to a halt very soon,’ he told MailOnline. ‘The vast majority of those isolating aren’t sick and most with symptoms say it feels like a cold.
‘Ten days in isolation is too long. The tests are flawed, and asymptomatic spread is unproven.’
COVENT GARDEN… Left: 2019. Right: Today. The popular central London jaunt was quiet on Friday afternoon amid surging Covid cases
WESTFIELD… Left: 2019. Right: Today. The sprawling London shopping centre was dead on Friday despite being the run up to Christmas
A shopping street in Gloucester. Retailers face an uncertain Christmas as people choose to stay at home during the latest wave of Covid 19 infections
Gloucester Quays pictured today. Lots of people are deciding to stay away from pubs and restaurants to avoid catching Covid before Christmas
There were slightly more shoppers out and about in Manchester today – with many of them wearing face masks
A busy outdoor market in Bristol. Business leaders have warned about the damaging impact of a fall in high street footfall
Boris Johnson was today urged to relax the 10-day quarantine rule for positive cases in favour of a test and release scheme to stop Omicron ‘disabling everything’
A rammed Covent Garden in London in 2019 (November) and the same spot almost empty of visitors in a picture taken yesterday, when it should have been even more busy due to Christmas
An empty Westfield shopping centre in London today and during the Black Friday sales in November 2019
He added: ‘We are in grave danger of disabling everything – transport, supermarkets, food supply, hospitals etc if we persist with the 10 day rules for those who test positive or have been in contact with them.
‘We need to dramatically reduce the isolation period and allow release once tested negative. And if we decide that Omicron is much milder, then all isolation rules should be scrapped.’
Today, Rishi Sunak held crunch talks with hospitality chiefs after deciding to return earlier than planned from a work trip to California to discuss the crisis facing the industry.
Pictures from town centres last night and today showed people are continuing to stay away from town centres.
Meanwhile, the congestion level reported by TomTom in London at 8am was 40 per cent – the lowest level all week.
Traffic levels at the same period today were 33 per cent in Birmingham, 36 per cent in Manchester, 40 per cent in Liverpool, 34 per cent in Sheffield, 46 per cent in Leeds and 28 per cent in Newcastle.
Mr Sunak had been in the US on a ‘long-planned’ Government trip to meet tech bosses but his timing has attracted criticism.
He met hospitality leaders yesterday via Zoom but had to miss one roundtable event because it clashed with a scheduled call with US healthcare bosses.
This prompted one of the British executives to quip to the FT that he was too busy drinking ‘organic kale smoothies’.
Mr Sunak told CNN he is holding in-person talks today after cutting short his visit. ‘I understand this is a concerning time for business leaders across the country,’ he said.
‘I’ve been in touch with industry business leaders and it’s why I’ve curtailed my trip and will be leaving earlier tonight.’
The Chancellor insisted ministers were not telling people to cancel their Christmas events, adding: ‘The situation is very different to what we’ve done and encountered before.
‘We’re not telling people to cancel things, we’re not closing down businesses.’
The hospitality sector is demanding the Government bring forward fresh financial support after the spread of the variant and the latest Covid advice to be cautious ahead of Christmas prompted a wave of booking cancellations.
Bosses expect the final total to hit £4billion of lost takings.
But Mr Sunak insisted ministers were already helping, telling the BBC: ‘Until spring next year most businesses are only paying a quarter of their business rates bill, they are benefitting from a reduced rate of VAT all the way through to next spring, and thirdly there is about a quarter of a billion pounds of cash sitting with local authorities to support those businesses.’
Shoppers out in Manchester this afternoon, with armed police mingling with them during a patrol
A quiet Soho in London last night. Normally the streets would be packed at this time of the year – just one day before Black Eye Friday
This restaurant in Newcastle had swathes of empty tables – while only a few revellers were out and about in bars
Three women dressed as Santa Claus enjoyed a night out in Newcastle city centre yesterday – which was far quieter than usual
Some bars in Newcastle managed to attract queues. However, it was still quiet for the time of the year – usually one of the busiest
An empty platform at London Bridge underground station this morning after commuters were asked to work from home
An empty escalator at London Bridge today. The fall in passenger numbers will be another blow for Transport for London, which is struggling with record debt
LONDON: English cities were eerily quiet this morning too as commuters continued to stay away. The congestion level reported by TomTom in the capital at 8am was 40 per cent – the lowest level all week
LIVERPOOL: Traffic levels at the same period today were 40 per cent in Liverpool (pictured), 33 per cent in Birmingham , 36 per cent in Manchester, 34 per cent in Sheffield, 46 per cent in Leeds and 28 per cent in Newcastle
Pubs and restaurants have now started closing early for Christmas after they were hit by a ‘double whammy’ of staff absences and plummeting consumer confidence.
Some restaurants said they had ‘no option’ but to shut because so many of their staff have caught coronavirus and have had to isolate amid fears the problem will worsen as the ‘tidal wave’ of infections surges across the country.
Mr Sunak and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke held calls yesterday with firms including Prezzo, Black Sheep Brewery, Nando’s, Greene King, Whitbread and Adnams.
Labour has called on the Government to announce a new support package for the sector but ministers are yet to commit to providing any extra cash.
It is feared that the UK could be recording hundreds of thousands of daily Covid cases by Christmas Eve as Omicron continues to surge.
That could force millions of Brits into isolation, potentially causing huge disruption to the workforce and to key industries.
The hospitality industry has accused Boris Johnson of imposing a ‘lockdown by stealth’ after Professor Chris Whitty urged people to limit socialising in the coming days.
Mr Johnson denied the claim yesterday, telling reporters: ‘We’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.’
Some small pubs and restaurants are deciding it is better to shut than stay open, either because lots of their staff have contracted Covid and are not available, or because nearly all their bookings have been cancelled. However, most venues remain open and very few big chains have shut.
Yesterday, society favourite Evelyn’s Table in London’s Soho put its closure down to ‘members of our core team having to isolate’.
Some revellers in Leeds continued to celebrate last night on what would normally be one of the busiest nights of the year
Helping hand: A man assists a fellow reveller with her footwear during an evening out in Leeds last night
A group of friends posing for the camera in Newcastle. Bars and restaurants are smarting from lower than normal demand
Barrafina Drury Lane in Covent Garden said ‘staff members isolating makes the services non-viable’, while Kol in London’s Marylebone said that it had ‘no option’ but to temporarily close while ‘key team members isolate’.
Darjeeling Express near Leicester Square reported a ‘double whammy of staff sickness combined with huge cancellations of groups’, while Blend Kitchen in Sheffield said it had seen a 50 per cent fall in bookings.
After daily virus cases surged to a record 88,376 with 146 deaths yesterday, British Chambers of Commerce president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith warned: ‘With the UK recording its highest ever number of Covid cases in a single day, and this being set to rise further in the coming days and weeks, businesses now face the two-punch combination of serious issues with staff absence and plummeting consumer confidence.’
Britain could reach up to 460,000 daily Covid cases by Christmas Eve – forcing two million people into isolation – if infections continue to increase as quickly as some scientists expect. Such huge numbers could cause massive disruption to key services from people being off work.
While government contingency plans call for the military to be called in to cover gaps in services such as the NHS, police, Border Force and energy workers if they are hit by huge shortages, they are untested in the real world. Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital Trust in London said 10 per cent of its staff are currently off due to Covid.
If the number of people testing positive doubles every three days, then there would be 463,704 daily cases on Christmas Eve. That would force the 1.9million people testing positive between now and then into isolation for 10 days, the equivalent of 3 per cent of the population
Such huge numbers could partially paralyse the country, causing ‘huge disruption from people being off work’ and threatening key services including the NHS and police, experts claimed. Graph shows: The number of NHS staff off work with Covid every day over the last two weeks. Dips on December 5 and 12 occurred on Sundays, when fewer staff are working and therefore less absences are expected. Figures are expected to increase in the coming weeks