Boris hits brakes on Christmas curbs as scientists give Omicron hope

Omicron ‘IS milder than Delta’: Boris hits the brakes on Christmas lockdown as scientists give glimmer of hope in leaked first study and ministers say cases are lower than feared – but all eyes on mutant epicentre London with New Year curbs still possible

  • PM has ruled out more restrictions before Christmas but insisted government monitoring data ‘hour by hour’
  • Claims that initial study by UKHSA has concluded Omicron variant is milder than Delta but unclear how much
  • Ministers openly pointing out cases are lower than dire predictions in some models as public reacts to threat  
  • Another 90,629 Covid cases were recorded in 24 hours across the UK yesterday, along with 172 more deaths 

PM’s statement ruling out Christmas Day curbs 

Good afternoon everybody.

I wanted to update you quickly on the latest Covid situation.

There is no doubt that Omicron continues to surge with a speed unlike anything we’ve seen before.

The situation remains extremely difficult but I also recognise that people have been waiting to hear whether their Christmas plans are going to be affected.

So what I can say tonight, is that naturally we can’t rule out any further measures after Christmas – and we’re going to keep a constant eye on the data, and we’ll do whatever it takes to protect public health.

But in view of the continuing uncertainty about several things – the severity of Omicron, uncertainty about the hospitalisation rate or the impact of the vaccine rollout or the boosters, we don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas.

We continue to monitor Omicron very closely and if the situation deteriorates we will be ready to take action if needed.

What this means is that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans but the situation remains finely balanced and I would urge everyone to exercise caution, to keep protecting yourselves and your loved ones, especially the vulnerable.

And remember to keep following the guidance – wear a mask indoors when required to do so, keep fresh air circulating, and take a test before you visit elderly or vulnerable relatives.

So, if you have not done so already then please drop everything, find a walk-in or go online and make an appointment and Get Boosted Now.

Boris Johnson hit the brakes on Christmas lockdown as scientists concluded the Omicron strain is likely to be milder than Delta, it was revealed today – with ministers saying cases are also lower than feared. 

The PM declared last night that Christmas can definitely go ahead ‘cautiously’, but warned that the government is tracking the spread of the mutant strain hour by hour and is ‘ready’ to act after December 25 if necessary.

However, in a glimmer of light there are claims today that the UK Health Security Agency has tentatively backed suggestions that Omicron infections tend to be less severe.

The scientists also endorsed previous findings that booster jabs offer significant protection from developing symptoms and ending up in hospital, according to Politico.

The evidence – due to be published formally in the coming days – does not mean that the threat from the variant can be ignored, as it is so transmissible that large numbers are set to end up in hospital.

However, it will be a significant boost to Mr Johnson as he weighs up whether to bring in even tougher restrictions after Christmas.

In a round of interviews this morning, health minister Gillian Keegan said ‘we haven’t received that officially yet’ when asked about the UKHA conclusions. 

She also pointed out that the cases, while dramatically up, are still way off the grim predictions of some scientific models. 

‘Whilst the case numbers are very high, they haven’t yet reached what was estimated only a week ago,’ she said. 

A mooted ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown would be devastating for already-stricken businesses, as well as ruining the New Year plans of millions. 

There are claims that the government is watching hospitalisations in London, and could act if the number rises above 400. 

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is among at least three Cabinet ministers pushing for a ‘thorough assessment of the economic impact of further restrictions’, according to the Telegraph. 

Another 90,629 Covid cases were recorded in 24 hours across the UK yesterday, along with 172 deaths. 

A further 15,363 infections with the Omicron variant have been confirmed, bringing the total to 60,508 – although the pace of spread looks slower than initially feared.    

MPs who were briefed on the latest information by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said there was still no clarity on the data that would justify new curbs. One said members of the backbench Covid Recovery Group were ‘unimpressed’ with the briefing.

Another – a former minister – said the briefing was ‘very data-light’. He added that he and his colleagues felt there was ‘absolutely no basis on which to rush into further curbs after Christmas – and most of all hospitality and families need some clarity beyond this weekend.’

However, another Tory MP told the Times: ‘I didn’t get the impression they [Whitty and Vallance] were convinced we were making a mistake [in not imposing restrictions], even if they probably thought on balance we probably are.’ 

The top advisers are said to have warned of the prospect of ‘huge staff shortages’ in the NHS over the coming days as a result of the spread of the virus. 

Amid rising anger that millions of people are being left in limbo, the PM last night completely ruled out any further curbs being introduced before December 25.

But he gave notice that the government is still monitoring the ‘finely balanced’ situation with Omicron ‘very carefully’ and is ‘ready to take action’ afterwards if necessary. 

In a further boost, officials cut the quarantine time for confirmed virus cases from ten to seven days for those who test negative two days in a row. The rule change, which takes effect from Wednesday, will free thousands of people from isolation in time for Christmas. 

The short-term clarity came after Nicola Sturgeon dramatically cancelled large-scale New Year celebrations in Scotland, reintroducing limits on households mixing, table service in hospitality and crowds at major events.

Wales is also expected to announce more post-Christmas restrictions on households mixing later.  

In a statement released on video last night, Mr Johnson said: ‘What this means is that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans but the situation remains finely balanced and I would urge everyone to exercise caution, to keep protecting yourselves and your loved ones, especially the vulnerable.

‘And remember to keep following the guidance – wear a mask indoors when required to do so, keep fresh air circulating, and take a test before you visit elderly or vulnerable relatives.’ 

On another intense day of coronavirus drama:

  • Thousands more people are set to be released from isolation in time for Christmas as ministers cut the period from 10 days to seven days; 
  • Ms Keegan warned people must be ready to cancel New Year plans at short notice due to the ‘uncertainty’ over Omicron;  
  • Mr Johnson’s personal rating have slumped again, with YouGov finding a net minus 48 think he is performing well – down from minus 35 last month. Just 22 per cent approve of the government with 60 per cent disapproving. 

Boris Johnson tonight declared that Christmas can definitely go ahead ‘cautiously’ – but new restrictions for the New Year could be unveiled in as little as 48 hours

MPs who were briefed on the latest information by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said there was still no clarity on the data that would justify new curbs.

Covid isolation period is cut to SEVEN days 

More than 280,000 people infected with coronavirus and facing Christmas alone can now safely enjoy festivities with their families after a change in isolation rules.

Health chiefs have today announced those who test positive for Covid can be released after seven days, rather than 10, providing they take two lateral flow tests at the end of that period.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said infected patients can take the tests 24 hours apart on day six and seven of their isolation period, which if negative means they can stop quarantining.

This means the 102,875 people who tested positive on December 15, the 95,058 positive cases the following day, and a further 82,945 people who contracted the virus on December 17, will be free to enjoy Christmas together with loved ones under the new rules.

It has also been hailed as a major boost to the NHS, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid reportedly among those concerned at the number of staff who’ve been off work with the virus under the 10-day rule.

However, unvaccinated adults who have come into contact with someone infected with Covid must still self-isolate until 10 days after their estimated date of exposure to the virus.

Asked on LBC about going ahead with a gathering or party on December 31, Ms Keegan said: ‘There is uncertainty. So, if you can’t change your plans quickly, then maybe think about it.

‘There is uncertainty. We can’t predict what the data is going to tell us before we’ve got the data.

‘We are trying to take a balanced and proportionate approach so that people can see their families over Christmas to try and plan some stuff.

‘But of course it is difficult to anticipate.’

She said the uncertainty in the data is ‘particularly’ around severity.

Ms Keegan said ‘we don’t know that yet’ on whether Omicron cases have plateaued.

‘No, we haven’t been given that information, we are watching the data very, very carefully,’ she said.

She said the decision that was taken on further restrictions before Christmas was ‘difficult’. 

‘We do not have all the information that you would like to have at your fingertips, in particular … the severity of the disease. 

‘So it is a difficult balance but we think we’ve got the balance right. You know, saying to the country we wanted to lock down etc, when you’ve got those kind of figures wouldn’t look proportionate.’ 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a £1billion bailout for stricken businesses yesterday after a wave of mass cancellations in response to Omicron. 

The Chancellor announced grants of up to £6,000 per premises for hospitality and leisure. 

The taxpayer will also cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences for companies with fewer than 250 employees.    

Ms Sturgeon heaped pressure on Mr Johnson by tightening the rules north of the border from December 27, urging people not to mix with other households until the end of the first week in January – including Hogmanay. Table service will be reintroduced in hospitality venues, and there must be a one-metre gap between groups.  

The SNP leader said crowds at large public events will be limited for three weeks after Boxing Day – with football matches effectively becoming ‘spectator free’.  

There has been heavy criticism of the claim from SAGE modellers that deaths could reach 6,000 a day in the worst scenario, and although daily cases have been rising sharply and topped 100,000 on December 15 they are still short of the levels feared. 

Leading statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter has also pointed out that around half of new Covid admissions in Omicron hotspot London only tested positive after arriving at hospital, possibly for a different ailment – although he stressed they would still add to pressure on the health service.

Official figures yesterday revealed that Covid was mentioned on 764 death certificates registered in England and Wales in the week to December 10 – 4 per cent down from the previous week and the lowest level since October.   

Amid rising anger that millions of people are being left in limbo, the PM completely ruled out any further curbs being introduced before December 25

Nicola Sturgeon today cancelled large scale New Year celebrations in Scotland as she unveiled additional coronavirus restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant

People have still been out doing last-minute shopping in Winchester today despite the alarm over the Omicron spread 

Workers in Edinburgh began to dismantle the city’s preparations for Hogmanay after Ms Sturgeon announced the new curbs to MSPs at Holyrood

The latest YouGov research has found just 22 per cent approve of the government, with 60 per cent disapproving

A queue for a vaccination centre at Hampden Park in Glasgow today, before Ms Sturgeon announced that more restrictions will be brought in for Scotland after Christmas  

‘A lump of coal for Christmas’: Fury as Sturgeon cancels New Year in Scotland over Omicron fears 

Nicola Sturgeon today cancelled large scale New Year celebrations in Scotland as she unveiled additional coronavirus restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, prompting business leaders to accuse her of giving firms ‘a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking’. 

The Scottish First Minister revealed there had been nine new deaths and 5,242 positive tests in the last 24 hours, down on the 6,734 cases recorded yesterday, as she said official advice for Christmas Day remains unchanged, with people allowed to meet with family but urged to be cautious. 

But from December 26 for three weeks there will be attendance limits placed on live public events which will torpedo Hogmanay festivities.

The limits will not apply to private life events like weddings, but Ms Sturgeon said for indoor standing events the limit will be 100 people, for indoor seated events it will be 200 and for outdoor events 500 seated or standing. 

This will mean that from Boxing Day football and other sporting matches in Scotland will effectively be spectator-free.          

Ms Sturgeon also said that from December 27 the Scottish Government is advising people to return to limiting their social contacts ‘as much as you possibly can’ while a table service-only requirement will be reimposed on hospitality venues serving alcohol, lasting for an initial period of three weeks. 

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce said the new restrictions represented ‘another hammer blow’ for businesses and many will view it ‘as the equivalent of receiving a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking’.   

Covid cases have remained flat since last Friday when they hit a peak of more than 93,000. 

The slowing statistics may be behind Mr Johnson’s decision not to bring any tougher restrictions before Christmas, claiming there was ‘not enough evidence to justify’ them.

Gloomy Government modelling presented to ministers last week said the mutant variant was doubling every two days and was infecting up to 400,000 daily by the weekend. 

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that Mr Johnson had made the right decision as he slammed the modelling.

He said: ‘It’s not all doom and gloom, it does look like Omicron has stopped growing. The numbers over the last few days seem to have plateaued and maybe even be falling.

‘It’s a bit too soon to be absolutely sure about that, but if it is the case Boris Johnson will breathe a sigh of relief. We have to be a little bit careful because it’s only a few days.

‘And because we’re getting closer to Christmas there is nervousness that people may not come forward for testing because they don’t want to test positive and miss out on meeting relatives.

‘Omicron overtook the other variants around December 14 so most of any changes from there on would be down to Omicron. So if it was still doubling every two days that would have shown and we should have been at 200,000 cases yesterday and certainly more than 200,000 cases today.

‘But the fact it has been around 91,000 raises the point that it might actually have peaked. But it will probably take until at least Wednesday to get an idea of a day that is not affected by the weekend. But I am more optimistic than I was a few days ago.

There were 1.49million tests conducted today which is down from 1.56 million last Wednesday, but Professor Hunter said the ‘relatively small drop’ in testing would not hide a virus truly doubling every two days.

Latest hospital figures show there were 847 Covid admissions on December 17, up only 7 per cent on the previous week. There were a further 172 Covid deaths today, up 14 per cent. 

In epicentre London the wave also appears to be slowing after 20,491 cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, down slightly on yesterday’s tally of 22,750. It also marked the sixth day in a row cases have been above 20,000.

Hospitalisations in the capital are rising with another 245 registered today, up 56 per cent in a week, but MailOnline analysis showed up to a quarter of these are not primarily Covid.  

Mr Sunak finally unveiled the support for businesses after bars and restaurants were left deserted following increasingly grim warnings from Chris Whitty and other experts. The spending will make another dent in the public finances, after new figures revealed today that borrowing has risen above forecasts with the economy stalling. 

A survey by Ipsos MORI revealed a majority of Britons are now taking matters into their own hands to reduce their chances of catching coronavirus, with 58 per cent saying they have avoided public transport or plan to do so, and 57 per cent saying the same about going to pubs and restaurants, and social gatherings with friends and family. 

Local authorities will administer the £683million of hospitality and leisure grants, with 200,000 businesses set to benefit – although the criteria do not seem clear. Another £102million will go into discretionary funds, again controlled by town halls, and the emergency fund for cultural organisations will get a £30million boost. 

The devolved administrations will receive around £150million of funding through the Barnett formula as part of the support announced, with around £80million for the Scottish Government, £50million for the Welsh Government and £25million for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Mr Sunak gave a strong hint that the government will go further if more restrictions are needed, saying they cannot ‘rule anything out’.

‘People will be able to look at our track record over the last year or two and supporting people and businesses, especially in the hospitality industry throughout this crisis,’ he told journalists.

‘I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face. People can have confidence in that.

‘Where we are now we’ve responded, I think, generously today, the grants that we’ve outlined up to £6,000 are comparable to the grants that we provided for hospitality businesses when they were completely closed earlier this year. So, there’s a benchmark for you.

‘Also, it’s important to remember we have support already in place that lasts all the way to next spring.

‘So, for example, a reduced rate of VAT for the hospitality and tourism sectors, and this year they are benefiting from a 75 per cent discount on their business rates bill. Those types of things last all the way to next March to support the industry.’  

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