22 December 2021

Boris Johnson urged to outline Covid plans as rest of UK brings gets tough on restrictions

22 December 2021

Boris Johnson has been told to outline his post-Christmas Covid strategy for England, as Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have all announced new restrictions to tackle the Omicron variant.

On Wednesday evening, Stormont ministers agreed a series of restrictions due to come into force on Boxing Day, including nightclubs having to close at 8pm, and guidance to limit contacts with different households.

The Northern Ireland announcement follows similar measures set out in Wales earlier the same day, and in Scotland on Tuesday.

But the Prime Minister has reassured people that no further curbs will be introduced in England before December 25, given there is not enough evidence on the severity of the Omicron variant and hospital admission to justify stricter measures.

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The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has said reports of Omicron producing milder illness than previous strains of Covid are being assessed, while the minister for care, Gillian Keegan, has warned there is “uncertainty” around people making plans for New Year’s Eve.

Meanwhile, the latest Government figures show a further 106,122 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases have been recorded in the UK as of 9am on Wednesday, the first time daily reported cases have risen above 100,000.

The Government said a further 140 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.

Figures from NHS England show that 1,904 people were in hospital in London with Covid-19 as of December 21, the highest number since March 2 and up 41% from a week earlier.

Across England, 6,902 patients were in hospital with Covid-19 on December 21 – the highest number since November 10 and up 7% week-on-week.

The PA news agency understands Northern Ireland’s new restrictions were agreed at a virtual meeting of the powersharing Executive on Wednesday.

Ministers are set to announce a series of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

PA understands these could include urging people to limit contacts in domestic settings to three households by way of guidance, and limits on the numbers of people at tables in hospitality settings.

A work from home message is due to be bolstered and legislation will be introduced to require social distancing in the workplace.

Northern Ireland sporting events can continue with no limits on capacities but this will be reviewed on December 30.

In Wales, new measures were unveiled at a press conference from Mr Drakeford.

These include: two-metre social distancing in all premises open to the public and workplaces, where reasonable; the rule of six applying to gatherings in regulated premises, such as hospitality, cinemas and theatres; table service in licensed premises; face coverings in hospitality settings at all times apart from when seated; and a maximum number of 30 people at an indoor event and 50 outdoors.

There will be an exception for team sports, where up to 50 spectators will be able to gather in addition to those taking part.

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England is now left as an outlier when it comes to post-Christmas restrictions, as in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already introduced new curbs on hospitality while live sports will be “effectively spectator-free” for three weeks from Boxing Day.

Mr Drakeford criticised what he called the UK Government’s inaction over rising Omicron cases, saying: “I believe the UK Government sees all the data we see and gets all the advice that we get about the need to act and act urgently in the light of the Omicron wave coming our way.”

He added: “They are paralysed by their internal divisions and are unable to act on it.”

But Ms Keegan said she believed the UK Government’s approach was “better”, although she acknowledged different parts of the country had adopted different plans during the pandemic.

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She told Times Radio: “I think we’re taking a better approach, personally, but, of course, the devolved administrations, everybody looks at their risk, everybody will take their own opinions.”

Ms Keegan, asked on LBC about going ahead with a gathering or party on December 31, said: “There is uncertainty. We can’t predict what the data is going to tell us before we’ve got the data.”

Labour pressed for decisions to be made as soon as possible.

Shadow work and pensions secretary, Jon Ashworth, told Sky News: “Businesses have got to make decisions about what stock to get in, in the run-up to new year’s eve, so I think it would be reasonable for the Government to produce a road map, if you like, a plan of what they think may well be anticipated in terms of further restrictions post-Christmas so people know where we stand.”

Elsewhere, a new formulation of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has been approved for use in children aged five to 11.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is advising that children aged five to 11, who are in a clinical risk group, or who are a household contact of someone (of any age) who is immunosuppressed, should be offered a primary course of vaccination.

New figures also show a record 968,665 booster and third doses of Covid-19 vaccine were also reported in the UK on Tuesday.

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UK Government scientists are reportedly set to conclude that Omicron is causing a milder disease than the Delta strain in most Britons.

Politico’s London Playbook said the UK Health Security Agency is expected to publish early real-world data on the disease’s severity before Christmas, with its findings also suggesting Omicron is not necessarily mild enough to avoid large numbers of hospital admissions.

Mr Javid told broadcasters: “There is analysis taking place, that analysis is not complete but I do look forward to receiving it.”

The Government has also announced the self-isolation period for vaccinated and unvaccinated people who test positive for coronavirus has been cut to a week, which will give more people the chance to spend time with loved ones over Christmas.

From Wednesday, those in England who receive negative lateral flow results on day six and day seven of their self-isolation period will no longer have to self-isolate for the full 10 days.

But those who are unvaccinated close contacts of positive cases must still isolate for 10 days, the UKHSA later clarified.

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