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Work-from-home guidance will return, Covid health certificates are to become mandatory in large venues and mask rules will be extended to combat the Omicron variant as Boris Johnson announced a move to his Plan B to tackle coronavirus.
The Prime Minister warned it is clear the new strain is “growing much faster” than Delta, and cases of Omicron could be doubling every two or three days as he strengthened England’s rules.
Mr Johnson said Christmas parties and nativities could go ahead, but urged people to “exercise due caution” and get their booster jabs as he came under pressure over allegations of a rule-breaching festive bash in No 10 last year.
Mandatory mask wearing will be extended to indoor public venues including cinemas, theatres and places of worship from Friday but will not be required in pubs and restaurants, while the guidance to work from home where possible will return on Monday.
The NHS Covid pass, which can be obtained by having two vaccines or a negative lateral flow test, will be introduced for entry into nightclubs and other large venues from December 15, as Mr Johnson set out the “proportionate and responsible” measures.
But he was forced to insist the public understands the “vital importance” of the measures as he faced questions at the hastily-arranged Downing Street press conference over how they can accept his rules amid anger over allegations staff broke Covid rules in a party on December 18 last year.
Mr Johnson added: “The best way to ensure we all have a Christmas as close to normal as possible is to get on with Plan B, irritating though it may be it is not a lockdown.
“We don’t want nativity plays to be cancelled, we think it’s okay currently on what we can see to keep going with Christmas parties but obviously everybody should exercise due caution.”
The Prime Minister denied suspicions he had brought forward the announcement to divert attention from the row and the leaked video showing No 10 staff laughing about restrictions after the alleged party, which on Wednesday forced the resignation of Government aide Allegra Stratton.
“Just imagine the counterfactual, colleagues say, or people say, we’re somehow making this announcement to coincide with events in politics well actually imagine if this step were to be delayed because of political events of one kind or another, what would people say then? You’ve got to act to protect public health when you’ve got the clear evidence,” he said.
Stood beside Mr Johnson on the same podium where Ms Stratton made the remarks, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty acknowledged the anger when people feel “it’s unfair”.
But he added that was “quite different from people wanting to actually know what’s going on and then make decisions”.
In a simultaneous announcement in the Commons, Health Secretary Sajid Javid was urged to quit as he faced a barrage of criticism from the Tory backbenches at the new restrictions, which he said would be reviewed on January 5, before their expiry date of January 26.
Senior Tory William Wragg was heard shouting “resign” at the new rules, and the party row added to anger and fears that public support for the Conservatives had further “taken a hit” following the Owen Paterson affair.
Former chief whip Mark Harper added: “Why should people at home listening to the Prime Minster and the Secretary of State do things that people working in Number 10 Downing Street are not prepared to do?”
Mr Javid said the new restrictions were being imposed “with a heavy heart” but insisted they were necessary as he said there are 568 cases of Omicron confirmed in the UK, but that the true figure is estimated to be “probably closer to 10,000”.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned Omicron is spreading “rapidly” and it is possible hospital admissions from the new variant in England could exceed 1,000 per day – and still be increasing – by the end of the year.
“The overall scale of any wave of hospitalisations without interventions is highly uncertain, but the peak could reach several times this level,” the minutes from a meeting held on Tuesday said.
Kate Nicholls, the head of trade body UKHospitality, warned of “catastrophic” results without Government support for the sector, while unions called for furlough measures to return.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: “Requiring people to work from home over the busy Christmas period will hit jobs – unless ministers bring back furlough.”
Covid health certificates will apply to unseated indoor venues with more than 500 attendees, and outside where there are more than 4,000 people.
The Prime Minister said passes can be obtained with a negative lateral flow test or by having had two doses of a vaccine, but hinted this could change by saying “we will keep this under review as the boosters roll out”.
MPs are expected to be given a vote on the measures on Tuesday, during which a number of Tory rebels who have been angered by restrictions are expected to oppose the Government.
But shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Labour would “put public health first” and support the measures, meaning they will almost certainly be approved in the Commons, as he accused the Prime Minister of having “undermined public trust and confidence” at a “critical time”.
“It’s quite clear Boris Johnson simply isn’t up to the job and Conservative MPs need to ask themselves whether they are happy for this man to continue being our Prime Minister,” he told reporters.