New Covid restrictions are unlikely to be imposed before Christmas amid deep cabinet divisions but Boris Johnson warned further measures remain on the table, with data on the threat of Omicron monitored “hour by hour”.
The prime minister was accused of failing to follow scientists’ advice on the need for immediate restrictions while leaving millions of people and businesses in limbo after a two-hour cabinet meeting ended with no decision on Monday.
During the meeting, scientific advisers briefed ministers on the latest data including a steep rise in hospitalisations in London, with the UK’s highest number of Omicron cases, terwyl 91,743 people tested positive for Covid on Monday across the UK.
Johnson het volgehou hy kan nie kommentaar lewer totdat Gray se verslag gepubliseer is nie, the prime minister said the arguments for and against stricter measures were “finely balanced” and the situation was “extremely difficult”.
With some people having already departed on Christmas breaks, government sources told the Guardian that fresh curbs were unlikely to be imposed before 25 December – though an announcement could be made in coming days on rules to be brought in before New Year’s Eve.
Measures under consideration include limits on households mixing indoors, social distancing and curfews for the hospitality sector. Parliamentary authorities are preparing for a possible request for the Commons to be recalled on Tuesday 28 December for a vote on any new measures.
Among cabinet ministers pushing for swift action were Sajid Javid, die gesondheidsekretaris, and Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary. Egter, die kanselier, Rishi Sunak, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, and the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, were said to be holding out for “incontrovertible evidence” that a plan C for tackling Omicron was needed.
Among the plans considered by cabinet on Monday was a return to “stage two” of England’s roadmap out of lockdown, which came into effect on 12 April. People were only allowed to socialise indoors with members of their own household or support bubble, while outdoor socialising was limited to the rule of six or two households.
Johnson said hospitalisations were rising “quite steeply” in London, where Omicron has hit hardest so far, adding that while he understood the strain on hospitality firms, the current plan B restrictions “can be very helpful to us and the country” at slowing the spread of the variant.
Die burgemeester van Londen, Sadiq Khan, announced the cancellation of the capital’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Trafalgar Square “in the interests of public safety” on Monday. The event had been due to be attended by 6,500 mense.
The number of UK vaccines administered within 24 hours broke 1m for the first time this weekend, it was confirmed. Just over 50% of over-12s have now also received a booster dose.
Prof Christina Pagel, the director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit, said that waiting for more definitive evidence of Omicron’s spread could cause the NHS to be overwhelmed and may mean it is too late to avert a crisis.
She urged ministers to “follow Sage advice and return to step two of the roadmap immediately to prevent thousands of infections over the coming days and then monitor the situation hour by hour so that measures can be lifted as quickly as possible, hopefully even in time to enable limited household mixing over Christmas weekend”.
A Department of Health source stressed that while Javid believed responding as early as possible to threats like Omicron was still the best way forward, the possibility of new restrictions remained unclear.
They said: “We want to be as open with people as we can, but it’s not easy. There is new data coming in all the time that we have to look at, from several places. We’re basically scouring for a signal within the noise.”
A former minister said Johnson appeared to be hamstrung by some of his top team. They said: “I don’t really see how it is scientifically defensible [not to act immediately] but it also feels about right in political and publicly-possible terms. The data about transmission points inexorably towards an approach that says ‘better safe than sorry for the sake of the NHS’. But it would also be unforgivable to be too cautious.”
A Tory MP resistant to new restrictions vowed to go ahead with their Christmas and New Year plans regardless of any new rules. They said: “If he tries to push ahead with new restrictions without convincing evidence, Boris is a dead man walking.” Another backbencher, Esther McVey, said ministers had “for once pushed back on the scaremongering by the lockdown fanatics”.
After the cabinet meeting ended with no certainty on restrictions, Labour accused Johnson of being “too weak” to stand up to his own MPs. Wesstraat, the shadow health secretary, gesê: “While businesses across the country wonder if they can continue to trade, and families make frantic calls about whether they will see each other this Christmas, true to form the prime minister has put his party before the public.
“Rather than set out a clear plan for the country, he has chosen to protect himself from his own MPs by simply not saying anything. Boris Johnson is unfit to lead.”
Kate Nicholls, the head of UKHospitality, said the industry needed notice of any restrictions that were to be placed on it next week, with financial support crucial. She said firms were in limbo, having lost up to 60% of their trade while still having big rent and rate bills as well as staff wages.
Greg Parmley, the chief executive of Live, which represents live music companies, said the government’s stance was “merely an excuse to withhold desperately needed financial support as sectors like live music and entertainment buckle under the weight of the latest Covid wave”.
Dehenna Davison, the Conservative MP for Bishop Auckland, gesê: “In the last two days, I’ve had pubs and restaurants contact me asking if they should place food and drinks orders. I’ve had emails from people asking if they should postpone their wedding for the fifth time, or if they can see their mum on Christmas. We really need some certainty.”