The emergence of the Omicron variant is causing concern around the world, not least because it is thought to be highly transmissible and because the 32 mutations of its spike protein suggest it might be able to resist current vaccines.
The UK has recorded 12 deaths from the new variant so far and 45,145 confirmed cases, prompting fears that further social restrictions could be imposed on the British public in the final days leading up to Christmas, dashing the festive plans of millions.
However, the Prime Minister has now confirmed that no further restrictions will be introduced before Christmas, explaining that “that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans”.
Boris Johnson also reiterated that he cannot rule out further measures in the following days – leaving open the possibility of new controls on pubs and nightclubs by New Year’s Eve.
He explained: “So what I can say tonight is that naturally we can’t rule out any further measures after Christmas – and we’re going to keep a constant eye on the data, and we’ll do whatever it takes to protect public health.”
The announcement comes a day after the Prime Minister told reporters that the Government were still deciding whether or not to impose further restrictions.
Following a special meeting of the Cabinet on Monday afternoon, the prime minister said he had to “reserve the possibility” that further action would be needed at some point but said there were “still some things that we need to be clearer about before we decide to go further”.
Mr Johnson said ministers were monitoring the data “hour by hour” and that the arguments for taking further action were “very, very finely balanced”.
“Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS,” he added.
“We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.”
The prime minister is understood to be waiting for more data on Omicron to become available before he makes a decision, a stance that has already seen him accused of “dithering” by scientists and his political opponents.
At the weekend, London mayor Sadiq Khan declared a major incident over the extent of the outbreak in the capital while NHS England has announced a return to its highest level of emergency preparedness, level four national incident, meaning that the health service’s response will be coordinated as a national effort, rather than led by individual trusts.
Overall, the UK added another 91,743 infections in 24 hours on Monday 20 December plus a further 44 fatalities, a slight fall from the pandemic high of 93,045 recorded the preceding Friday.
To put that in perspective, case numbers were at 27,052 on 19 December 2020, the day Mr Johnson “cancelled” Christmas with “a very heavy heart”, abandoning a restrictions amnesty on household mixing and imposing severe tier 4 restrictions on much of the south east of England.
Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance is said to have led the call for fresh measures to drive down infection rates and ease the pressure on the NHS.
Sir Patrick’s fellow advisers have been equally outspoken, with Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warning that Omicron is “coming at us like an express train” and insisting that the government must give the public a “good, clear message” about how “serious the crisis is”.
The prospect of introducing a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown after Christmas has been mooted – and appears likely to be broadly popular with the public – with plans made available to ministers for consideration and apparently including a ban on meeting others indoors except for work purposes and limiting pubs and restaurants to outdoor service only.
Both Mr Johnson and Mr Javid have repeatedly declined opportunities to definitively rule out tougher measures of this sort and transport secretary Grant Shapps did say last week that Parliament would be recalled over Christmas to vote on new restrictions should they become necessary.
However, whilst Mr Johnson is constitutionally able to recall Parliament for a vote on any new measures at any point, he was this evening running out of time to make the practical arrangements for MPs to return to Westminster before Christmas Day.
It is clear that the PM hopes encouraging the takeup of booster vaccines and the “Plan B” restrictions he recently introduced will be enough to see off the threat, at least until after Christmas, although the rising case numbers continue to cast considerable doubt on that contention.
As preventative measures against Omicron under “Plan B”, Britons are currently again being ordered to wear face masks in shops, cinemas, theatres and places of worship and on public transport, to work from home order where possible and to show an NHS Covid pass in return for entry to nightclubs and other large venues and for outdoor events where there are more than 4,000 people, measures voted through the House of Commons despite a significant Tory revolt.
The government has further revised its approach to boosters, planning to make them available to all over-18s by the end of December and halving the amount of time between second and third injections from six months to three, all in the hope of staving off the feared “tidal wave” of infections we are already beginning to see.
Some form of “Plan C” – be it a circuit-breaker or something else – could well materialise should the Omicron outbreak worsen over the festive season and into the new year but, as for imposing a fourth national lockdown as seen earlier in the pandemic, that is considered the most extreme measure that could be taken, given the brutal economic toll it takes, hence the reluctance from Whitehall.
But the Sage advisers have been unambiguous in calling for stricter curbs, with the influential Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London openly entertaining the possibility for several weeks.
Even before Omicron began to cast its sinister shadow across the globe, many Britons were already glancing anxiously towards the continent as Austria and the Netherlands reintroduced lockdowns in response to spiking cases of Covid-19.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) had said it was “very worried” about the spread in Europe and warned 700,000 more deaths could be recorded by March unless urgent action is taken, bringing the total to 2.2 million since the pandemic began.
Prior to the latest worrying developments sparked by Omicon, Mr Johnson’s government had been reluctant to reimpose restrictions at all, despite consistently high case numbers, preferring to pass the responsibility for personal safety onto the public and pursue its “Plan A” of promoting vaccine take-up and boosters to counter the waning of the country’s currently impressive level of immunity.
While the vaccines have consistently kept death rates low since the spring, the UK’s infection level has remained consistently high, typically hovering around the 40,000-per-day mark but are now at more than double that.
But the prime minister nevertheless doggedly refused to bend to scientists’ calls for the implementation of “Plan B” until it became unavoidable, no doubt out of fear that such a step could jeopardise Britain’s stumbling economic recovery.
He might also have been keen to ward off the inevitable anger it would provoke, having seen anti-lockdown protests – some of them violent – erupt in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy and Croatia.
Londoners were certainly unhappy about the initial return of the mask mandate, accusing the PM of hypocrisy for declining to wear one himself at several public engagements.
However, in other quarters, there appeared to be a clear appetite for new restrictions even before Omicron, at least according to the polls.
A recent survey of 900 managers and 1,200 employees carried out by Hack Future Lab found 53 per cent would welcome a “festive lockdown” for the sake of their own well-being after struggling to come to terms with the return to ordinary working conditions, often finding themselves forced to take on extra tasks to cover for absent colleagues.
Another poll by Savanta ComRes revealed 45 per cent of adults would be in favour of a selective lockdown targeting only those who had declined to get their Covid jabs and therefore could pose an ongoing risk to others
But, until Omicron threw a fresh spanner into the works, there was a credible case for believing that the UK was in such a strong position that it could avoid the worst of the outbreak marauding across Europe.
Omicron variant shows just how ‘perilous’ Covid situation is, WHO says
Although Britain’s infection rate has remained high for months, it has also been highly stable, lingering at a seven-day average of around 600 daily cases per million people, whereas Austria and the Netherlands have suddenly spiked to 1,500 and 1,250 respectively from well below that starting point since the beginning of October.
Part of the reason for this is that the UK was hit by the more infectious Alpha and Delta variants of the coronavirus sooner and was therefore able to tackle them ahead of its European neighbours and unlock earlier.
As always with this pandemic, so much remains unknown and nothing can ever be definitively ruled out.
Many will be haunted by memories of Christmas 2020, when plans had to be changed at the last moment to rein in climbing case numbers, and families were left frustrated, disappointed and unable to see vulnerable loved ones.
Today, Mr Johnson reiterated that “the situation remains finely balanced and I would urge everyone to exercise caution, to keep protecting yourselves and your loved ones, especially the vulnerable.”
He added: “And remember to keep following the guidance – wear a mask indoors when required to do so, keep fresh air circulating, and take a test before you visit elderly or vulnerable relatives.”
While the festive television adverts might have been busy encouraging reckless spending and promising a bumper Yuletide to compensate for last year (while stocks last, that is), many would do well to temper their excitement by recalling the haunting words of public health professor Gabriel Scally from last December.
“There is no point having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February,” he said.