Omicron Variant Pushes England into Tougher COVID Restrictions

Peter Russell

December 08, 2021

England is to move to 'Plan B' COVID-19 restrictions as the number of cases of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 rise sharply.

At a Downing Street news conference this evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a raft of measures on home working, expansion of mandatory face mask use in indoor spaces, and the use of COVID vaccination certificates.

Mr Johnson said that Omicron was growing much faster than the previous Delta variant and is spreading rapidly. Flanked by England's Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, he said that "568 cases have been confirmed through genomic sequencing across every region of the UK, and the true number is certain to be much higher". UK Health Security Agency figures released after the press conference say there are 705 cases in the UK.

There is now evidence that the doubling time of Omicron in the UK "could currently be between 2 and 3 days", the Prime Minister said.

Despite suggestions that Omicron could result in less severe disease than previous strains, it was too early for such an assumption, and that "we know that the remorseless logic of exponential growth could lead to a big rise in hospitalisations, and therefore, sadly, in deaths".

Mr Johnson had hoped to avoid tightening the restrictions, but conceded it was now "the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England".

Measures were needed to "slow the spread of the virus, buy ourselves the time to get more boosters into more arms, especially in the older and more vulnerable people, and understand the answers to the key outstanding questions about Omicron", he said.

The New Restrictions

Tightening the restrictions, which ministers had hoped to avoid, it was now "the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England".

Under the new measures:

  • From Monday December 13, people should work from home where possible

  • Wearing face masks will become mandatory from Friday December 10 in most public indoor venues, including theatres and cinemas

  • The NHS COVID pass would become mandatory in a week's time for entry into nightclubs and venues where large crowds gather, including any venue that seats more than 10,000 people

Downing Street also announced it would introduce daily contact tests for contacts of confirmed positive cases instead of the 10-day self-isolation period.

Mr Johnson also appealed to people to get all their COVID vaccinations "because our scientists are absolutely confident that your immune response will be stronger if you've been boosted".

He said: "Let’s do everything we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones this winter – and to reduce the pressures on our NHS."

Parliament will debate the measures next week, with a vote expected to take place on Tuesday December 14.

Commenting on tighter restrictions, Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London, said: "With Omicron doubling every two or three days in England right now, it is on track to become dominant by Christmas and continue growing rapidly, potentially putting huge pressure on the NHS which is already under immense strain.

"Plan B measures will not be enough to stop its path to dominance, as the suggested measures won’t be enough to bring R under 1, but they will slow it down."

Going forward, the Prime Minister said any further restrictions would be based on four key factors: efficacy of the vaccine; the severity of Omicron; speed of spread; and rate of hospitalisation.

Downing Street Festive Party Embarrassment

The announcement of further restrictions comes at an awkward time for Mr Johnson after a video emerged of Number 10 staff joking as they appeared to rehearse how to handle media questions about an alleged lockdown Christmas party in Downing Street on December 18 last year.

In the video recorded 4 days later, and leaked to ITV News, the Prime Minister's then spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, is heard to laugh as she remarks that "this fictional party was a business meeting, and it was not socially distanced".

At Prime Minister's questions today, Mr Johnson told MPs he was "furious" when he saw the video and had asked Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to "establish the facts".

The  Daily Mirror  reported that 40 to 50 people had attended last year's event where "officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a Secret Santa".

However, the Prime Minister told MPs today that "there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken, and that is what I have been repeatedly assured".

This afternoon Ms Stratton resigned from her current job in Number 10 and later apologised for her role in the video clip, saying she would "regret those remarks for the rest of my days".

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