The Prime Minister has warned that further restrictions to curb the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant are to be expected, but has ruled out any new measures before the end of the year.
Boris Johnson said “continuing uncertainty” about the severity of the new variant and hospital admission rates means he does not believe there is enough evidence at the moment to justify stricter measures, but added that the situation remains “finely balanced” and people should “exercise caution”.
While no new measures have been imposed in England ahead of the New Year, unlike in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson had urged people to get their Covid-19 booster vaccination to be able to enjoy the New Year “sensibly and cautiously”.
He said there are still 2.4 million eligible double-jabbed people who are yet to take up the offer of a booster dose, and said it is thanks to the jabs campaign that England has been able to maintain its current level of coronavirus controls.
Speaking during a visit to a vaccination clinic in Milton Keynes on Wednesday (29 December), the PM said: “I’m sorry to say this but the overwhelming majority of people who are currently ending up in intensive care in our hospitals are people who are not boosted.
“I’ve talked to doctors who say the numbers are running up to 90% of people in intensive care who are not boosted.
“If you’re not vaccinated, you’re eight times more likely to get into hospital altogether.
“So, it’s a great thing to do. It’s very, very important. Get boosted for yourself and enjoy (the) New Year sensibly and cautiously.”
What restrictions could be introduced?
The PM is understood to be considering three levels of restrictions to tackle the spread of Omicron, each of which vary in severity.
Under the plans, option one - the lightest of restrictions - would see families in England asked to limit the number of households they meet indoors over the festive period, without legal enforcement, according to The Telegraph.
Option two would mandate restrictions on household mixing, as well as see the return of social distancing and an 8pm curfew on pubs and restaurants, while option three would - the strictest of all - would see a full, country-wide lockdown imposed.
The news comes after Sajid Javid refused to rule out a two-week circuit breaker lockdown for the UK after Christmas, and accepted that tighter restrictions may be needed over the week ahead to limit the spread of Omicron.
The Health Secretary told Sky News' Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme that the government will "do what is necessary", but that any change must be "backed up by the data".
Mr Javid also said that ministers are discussing the latest Covid data "almost on an hourly basis" with scientific advisers.
‘Plans for two-week lockdown’
It emerged on 18 December that advisors to the government are reportedly drawing up plans for a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown after the festive period which would include a ban on indoor mixing.
According to The Times, draft regulations are being prepared which would ban meeting others indoors except for work purposes, and that pubs and restaurants would be limited to outdoor service only.
Meanwhile, The Financial Times reported that Boris Johnson has been presented with a number of options under Plan C, ranging from "mild guidance to nudge people, right through to lockdown".
The reports come after England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty both urged caution over socialising, with people advised to priortise the events that really matter to them over Christmas and New Year.
The call to be cautious comes following the reintroduction of some Covid restrictions in England earlier this month in response to the Omicron variant, which is now the dominant strain in the UK.
The government said the newly introduced measures are temporary and precautionary, and are expected to be reviewed in early January.
What is the Covid winter plan?
The government originally planned to follow Plan A which meant no additional restrictions would be reintroduced over the winter.
Instead, this plan relied on the success of the booster vaccine rollout and encouraging those who have not yet any doses to come forward for a jab.
However, in light of the Omicron outbreak the government has implemented its winter Plan B.
This has seen the return of guidance to work from home, mandatory face masks in most indoor venues, stricter self isolation rules and the introduction of Covid passes for nightclubs and large venues.
These include unseated venues with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue hosting more than 10,000 people.
People are now required to show proof of their vaccination status on entry, or proof of a recent negative Covid test.
While no limits have been imposed on social contact in England, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked people to only meet with two other households either side of Christmas, while care home residents can only have visitors from two households, who will need to be tested before entry.
Could there be another lockdown?
The government has described its Plan B measures as both temporary and precautionary, and it is hoped the restrictions coupled with the accelerated booster vaccine rollout will avoid further measures being needed.
But while ministers have said they expect the Plan B to be “sufficient”, there has been no guarantee that another lockdown is completely off the table.
Now there are reports that a lockdown is being seriously considered in Downing Street and it is expected that the Prime Minister will make an announcement on any rule changes in early January.
Parliament is due back on 4 January, which suggests that any new measures would likely come into effect on 5 January at the earliest.
Leaked minutes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), seen by the BBC, reportedly said scientists had told ministers that tougher measures need to be brought in "very soon".
Officials have apparently recommended moving to restrictions seen in step one and two of the easing of lockdown in the spring. This included a ban on indoor mixing and indoor hospitality. They also reportedly warned against delaying further interventions until next year.
Another national lockdown would require fresh legislation to introduce it.
Under a six-monthly review of the Coronavirus Act, the government has promised to scrap a number of its powers, including the ability to shut down entire sectors of the economy, temporarily shut schools, and ban social gatherings.
Some of the only legal powers remaining to ministers include the ability to require people to self-isolate, the power to allow local authorities to respond to an imminent threat to public health and the power to provide financial support to those forced to quarantine.
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