The UK is once again in a frantic race to contain a resurgent threat from Covid-19, with tougher restrictions announced on Wednesday 8 December, as the NHS intensifies efforts to deliver millions of booster vaccine shots.
People in England should work from home if they can from Monday 13 December, face masks will be legally required in most public indoor venues from Friday 10 December, and Covid passports will become mandatory for entry to settings with large crowds from 15 December, the prime minister said.
As Boris Johnson tries to contain a furious row over his staff allegedly holding a rule-breaking Christmas party in Downing Street last year, the question is whether an angry public will obey the new rules.
Johnson said moving to the government’s “Plan B” Covid measures in England is a “proportionate and responsible” step to slow the spread of infections of the omicron variant.
“We can’t yet assume omicron is less severe than previous variants,” Johnson told a Downing Street press conference. “So while the picture may get better – and I sincerely hope that it will – we know the remorseless logic of exponential growth could lead to a big rise in hospitalisations, and therefore sadly in deaths.”
So far, Johnson is not planning to move to a full lockdown, but the Prime Minister’s prediction that the festive season will be “much better than last Christmas” seems less certain than before.
Ten days ago, there were just two confirmed Omicron cases in the UK, but by 8 December the number had risen to 568. The true number is “certain” to be higher, Johnson said. Scientists have warned the faster-spreading new variant is likely to become dominant within weeks, and risks overwhelming the NHS if nothing is done. Data from South Africa show hospitalisations doubling in a week, while in the UK omicron cases may be doubling every two or three days, Johnson said.
The timing of the Plan B rules could hardly be more sensitive for the prime minister. Johnson is battling to contain public outrage over allegations that his Downing Street officials broke pandemic rules to hold a Christmas party with cheese, wine, and “secret Santa” last year.
In the short term, the move to the government’s Plan B rules is likely to dominate the news, giving Johnson some breathing space while the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, investigates what happened at the alleged party.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Johnson tried to draw a line under the party row, apologising and declaring himself “furious” and “sickened” by a video recording of his team apparently treating the event as a joke last year. He promised that disciplinary action will follow where appropriate and his Cop26 spokeswoman Allegra Stratton has already resigned over the issue.
Politically, Johnson is not yet in the clear. Senior Conservatives including Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and MP Sir Roger Gale told broadcasters on Wednesday the PM’s position would be in doubt if he’s shown to have mislead Parliament over the party.
The bigger risk for the UK is that members of the public are so angry at the idea Johnson’s team took them “for fools” – as the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, put it – that they simply ignore the government’s tighter Plan B restrictions. That would undermine the national effort to contain the Omicron variant, making harsher lockdown measures more likely.
Johnson continues to believe that the NHS booster vaccine programme is the country’s best hope of avoiding a new lockdown and tackling the threat from Omicron.
Early results from lab studies by Pfizer and BioNTech, published on Wednesday, suggest that a third booster jab is effective against the Omicron variant, and raises antibodies by a factor of 25.
The results will reinforce the imperative to roll out booster shots to millions of people. By 6 December, 36 per cent of the population aged over 12 had received a third booster shot, while 81 per cent have had a second dose of a Covid vaccine.
Infections are rising, with 51,342 new cases of Covid-19 reported on 8 December. The seven-day average is up 11 per cent.
Under Plan B, the government will step up its messaging to warn the public to take more care, bring in mandatory Covid passports for certain settings, and legally require face masks to be worn.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reinforced rules on 7 December asking employers to make sure workers were staying at home wherever possible.
Vaccine passports: what are the new Plan B rules?
Under Plan B, the government expects the NHS Covid Pass – proving double vaccination or a negative lateral flow test – will be required for visitors to the following venues:
- All nightclubs;
- Indoor, crowded settings with 500 or more attendees where those attendees are likely to be in close proximity to people from other households, such as music venues or large receptions;
- Outdoor, crowded settings with 4,000 or more attendees where those attendees are likely to be in close proximity to people from other households, such as outdoor festivals; and
- Any settings with 10,000 or more attendees, such as large sports and music stadia.
There are some settings that may be exempt from requirements to use the NHS Covid Pass, including communal worship, wedding ceremonies, funerals and other commemorative events, protests and mass participation sporting events.