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Covid news – live: ‘Plan B’ restrictions to be enforced in England, PM says as omicron cases surge ‘to 10,000’

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  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019

Boris Johnson has announced ‘plan B’ restrictions will be introduced in England from as early as next week, including guidance to work from home and vaccine passports being made mandatory at nightclubs and larger venues.

During a Downing Street press conference, the PM said: “It has become increasingly clear that omicron is growing much faster than the previous delta variant and is spreading rapidly all around the world.”

In a statement to MPs at the same time, health secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons there are currently 568 confirmed cases of the new variant in the UK, but that the estimated current number is “probably closer to 10,000”. He said the figure could hit one million before the end of the year.

“Most worryingly, there is evidence that the doubling time of omicron could currently be between two and three days,” Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, added at the press briefing earlier.

Follow our live coverage below

Read More

Plan B: Boris Johnson set to approve new Covid restrictions as omicron cases surge

What is Plan B and when could Covid restrictions be introduced?

Will there be another lockdown before Christmas as omicron cases rise?

Key Points

  • Boris Johnson announces plan B Covid restrictions for England...

  • ...as Sajid Javid warns true number of UK omicron cases likely 10,000

  • Omicron ‘likely’ to replace delta as UK’s dominant variant

  • Pfizer booster jab protects against omicron variant, tests indicate

  • Whitty: Huge increase in Covid hospitalisations

  • UK could reach 90,000 infections a day by Christmas, experts warn

Good Morning!

Wednesday 8 December 2021 03:59 , Stuti Mishra

Welcome to The Independent’s live blog covering the Covid-19 pandemic for Wednesday 8 December.

Pfizer provides less protection against omicron than other variants

Wednesday 8 December 2021 04:30 , Stuti Mishra

Researchers in South Africa have found in an early study that Pfizer’s vaccine provides some protection against the new omicron variant, but less than it provided with other variants.

Researchers at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban conducted the first experiment gauging the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine on omicron and found that it resulted in about a 40-fold reduction in levels of neutralising antibodies produced by people who had received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech SE shot, compared with the variant detected in China almost two years ago.

Alex Sigal, the head of research at the laboratory, said that the loss of immune protection is “robust, but not complete” and that further efficacy studies are needed to ascertain the extent of protection Pfizer can provide, adding that a booster dose can increase the protection.

“A good booster probably would decrease your chance of infection, especially severe infection leading to more severe disease,” the Bloomberg news agency quoted the researcher as saying. “People who haven’t had a booster should get one, and people who have been previously infected should be vaccinated."

Existing vaccines should be able to protect against omicron, says WHO official

Wednesday 8 December 2021 04:53 , Stuti Mishra

Reacting to the early lab tests in South Africa showing Pfizer’s reduced efficacy in protecting against the omicron variant, a World Health Organisation (WHO) official said existing vaccines should be able to provide adequate protection against severe cases even with the new variant.

According to the WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan, there was no sign yet that omicron would be better at evading vaccines than other variants.

"We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so" for omicron, Dr Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, told AFP news agency.

He added that initial data suggested omicron did not cause more severe illness but became milder.

"If anything, the direction is towards less severity," he said.

Fauci says omicron Covid variant ‘almost certainly’ not more severe than delta

Wednesday 8 December 2021 05:10 , Stuti Mishra

The United States’ top infectious disease official has said that the omicron coronavirus variant is “clearly highly transmissible”, but is “almost certainly” not more severe than delta.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse, Dr Anthony Fauci said that experiments testing the potency of antibodies from the various vaccines against the omicron variant should be available in the “next few days to a week”.

Fauci says omicron Covid variant ‘almost certainly’ not more severe than delta

Australia finds new 'omicron-like' sub-lineage

Wednesday 8 December 2021 05:42 , Stuti Mishra

Australia’s Queensland has detected two new cases of omicron, including one with a different lineage of the new variant.

While Australia already has confirmed instances of community transmission of omicron, the two cases are the first for Queensland.

Two men, who travelled from Nigeria and South Africa, were found infected with the omicron variant and both have been isolated while their contacts are being tested, officials confirmed on Wednesday.

But samples of one of the people tested, who travelled from South Africa to Brisbane on Saturday, was found to have a slightly different lineage of omicron genetically.

The scientific team that spotted the difference has passed it on to the international committee, resulting in reclassification of the variant into two lineages.

"The important part is those two sub-lineages, one has the S gene dropout and is the normal means of screening for omicron … but then this other gene then doesn’t have this S gene dropout,” Queensland’s chief health officer Peter Aitken was quoted as saying by ABC Australia.

He added that new classification would make it easier for people to recognise the potential spread of omicron in all communities.

South Korea to consider expanding at-home Covid treatment as cases rise to 7,000

Wednesday 8 December 2021 06:12 , Stuti Mishra

South Korea is considering expanding home treatment of Covid-19 patients, a health official said on Wednesday, amid fears of rising pressure on hospitals as cases spike once again in the country to record numbers.

The country reported 7,175 new coronavirus cases and 63 deaths on Tuesday, the first time daily infections were over 7,000, while hospitals treated a record 840 critical and serious cases.

"It is important to retain or reduce the trend of the current scale of the severely-ill patients within a week or two," Son Young-rae, a senior health ministry official, told a news conference.

He also said the government may need to make some adjustments to the way the healthcare system in the country works if cases continue to rise, including expanding the limit of Covid patients who can receive at-home treatment.

Already, asymptomatic patients and those with mild symptoms and below the age of 70 can treat themselves at home in the country.

The government will mobilise additional personnel to oversee coronavirus patients treating themselves at home and improve the emergency transfer system to hospitals for those who develop severe symptoms.

World’s largest vaccine manufacturer to halve its output

Wednesday 8 December 2021 06:44 , Stuti Mishra

Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker, has said it is going to halve its production of Covishield, a version of AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine, from next week due to an absence of orders.

"I am going to be reducing production by at least 50 per cent to begin with, going forward on a monthly basis, until orders again pick up either in India or the world," Adar Poonawalla, CEO of SII told India’s CNBC TV18.

SII’s Covishield has been the most administered vaccine in India and it is also being exported to developing and under-developed nations under the international vaccine sharing programme Covax.

The company began its exports once again in November after a long halt, after it said it reached its original target of producing one billion doses of Covishield by the end of the year.

“SII has reached this milestone ahead of time via rapid expansion of production capacity at its site in Pune,” the company said in a release in November.

Apart from Covishield, SII is also producing another Covid vaccine, Covovax, from US-based company Novavax, which received emergency use authorisation from regulators in Indonesia and the Philippines recently.

While SII has decided to reduce production, India is yet to take a call on providing booster jabs to its population despite fears of the omicron variant.

India, which has so far managed to fully vaccinate only 35 per cent of the population, has reported 23 cases of the new variant.

ICYMI: Downing Street staff filmed laughing about Christmas party in leaked footage

Wednesday 8 December 2021 07:00 , Stuti Mishra

A leaked footage appears to show Downing Street’s former press secretary Allegra Stratton laughing last year as No 10 staff appeared to attempt to prepare her for the possibility of journalists’ questions over a party in the building.

A recording obtained by ITV News purports to show Ms Stratton in Downing Street’s newly built £2.6m press briefing room, answering questions from one of Boris Johnson’s advisers about whether she “recognises” reports of a party in No 10.

“I went home,”Ms Stratton can be heard replying, before starting to laugh and adding, “hold on”, while appearing to think of an appropriate response.

After a significant pause, she is asked whether the prime minister would condone having a Christmas party, to which she laughs and responds: “What’s the answer?”

Others in the room can be heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”

“Is cheese and wine alright?” Ms Stratton can be heard asking, before adding with a laugh: “This is recorded. This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

The Independent has approached Ms Stratton for comment over the footage obtained by ITV News.

Our policy correspondent Jon Stone has this report:

Leaked recording shows Downing Street staff joking about Christmas party in No 10

David Lammy calls on prime minister to ‘come clean’ about alleged Christmas party

Wednesday 8 December 2021 07:57 , Chiara Giordano

Labour's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has called on the prime minister to "come clean" with the British public about an alleged lockdown-busting Christmas party in No 10.

Mr Lammy made the comments after footage was obtained by ITV News showing the prime minister's then-press secretary Allegra Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, joking about a "fictional" Downing Street party in December 2020.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "He's got to come clean with the British public."

He added: "It really is quite unacceptable that this is seen as something that is sort of humorous, or something that isn't serious, or something that suggests that there can be one rule for a prime minister and those in No 10 and another rule for the British public."

UK could reach 90,000 infections a day by Christmas, experts warn

Wednesday 8 December 2021 08:16 , Chiara Giordano

Covid cases could hit 90,000 a day by Christmas, experts have warned, as hospital admissions begin to increase even before the more transmissible omicron variant takes hold across Britain.

Scientific government officials say the daily number of positive cases is on course to surpass the highest peak of the pandemic within a matter of weeks, with both the omicron and delta variants circulating alongside one another to fuel a swift wave of infections.

Read the full story:

UK could reach 90,000 infections a day by Christmas, experts warn

First person to get Covid-19 jab urges others to get vaccinated

Wednesday 8 December 2021 08:44 , Chiara Giordano

Margaret Keenan, who a year ago became the first person to have a Covid-19 jab, has urged people to get a vaccination.

The 91-year-old said: "The best Christmas present I could have is being in good health and having had the jab and feeling free from this horrible virus."

The grandmother, who has also had her booster and flu jabs, described being a global name as "wonderful".

‘Too early’ to say how frequently Covid boosters will be needed, says NHS chief

Wednesday 8 December 2021 09:17 , Chiara Giordano

NHS England's national medical director said it is "too early" to say how frequently Covid-19 boosters will be needed in future, but stressed the booster programme is "even more critical" in the face of the omicron variant.

Professor Stephen Powis told ITV's Good Morning Britain: "Well, it's too early to say how frequently boosters might be given in the future.

"But what we know is that booster dose gives you a much higher level of antibodies in the blood - those are the antibodies that will neutralise the virus."

He said boosters are "really important" because "omicron may potentially reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine, but that can be countered by the booster because that boosts the antibodies and gives you your protection back again. So, even more critical than it was a few weeks ago to get that booster dose".

Covid booster shots likely needed ‘for years to come’, says Pfizer boss

Wednesday 8 December 2021 09:30 , Chiara Giordano

People are likely to need Covid-19 booster shots "for a number of years to come", a Pfizer boss has said.

Ben Osborn, country manager for the pharmaceutical firm in the UK, said it was not yet clear whether future boosters would be needed annually or every six months.

In an interview with PA news agency to mark the anniversary of the first jab being given as part of a mass vaccination programme, Mr Osborn said the campaign in the UK had been an "incredible endeavour".

‘Almost impossible’ for government to impose ‘very proscriptive’ restrictions, says Tory MP

Wednesday 8 December 2021 09:49 , Chiara Giordano

A Tory MP has said the government is likely to find it "almost impossible" to introduce "very proscriptive" Covid-19 restrictions, after a video emerged showing aides joking about festive celebrations last year.

Sir Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, was speaking after footage was obtained by ITV News, showing prime minister Boris Johnson's then-press secretary Allegra Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, laughing about a "fictional" Downing Street party in December 2020.

He told Times Radio: "I think now that, going forward, any measures will be advisory. I think it would be very difficult to enshrine them in law and then once again ask our poor police forces to enforce them."

He added: "To be very proscriptive about this now, particularly as we've had such a successful vaccine rollout... is much more difficult, and was always going to be much more difficult. And the events of the last 24 hours make it probably almost impossible now."

Should fines be issued to those who are not vaccinated against Covid? Tell us in our poll

Wednesday 8 December 2021 10:05 , Chiara Giordano

Greece is to make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for people aged 60 and over, in a drastic move to stem a new surge in coronavirus cases.

The Independent wants to hear your views on whether people who refuse to have a vaccine should face fines. Tell us your thoughts in the poll at the bottom of the story below:

Poll: Should fines be issued to those not vaccinated against Covid?

Attitude of PM’s aides ‘totally reprehensible’, says daughter of woman who died alone in hospital

Wednesday 8 December 2021 10:20 , Chiara Giordano

Jackie Green, whose 86-year-old mother Beryl Harris died alone in hospital on 18 December last year after contracting coronavirus, described the attitude of the prime minister's aides in the now infamous video as "totally reprehensible".

She told PA: "I couldn't quite comprehend what I was watching, I had to watch it several times to sink in.

"I was absolutely appalled that members of the government could laugh and joke about a party when people were losing their loved ones.

"Even if they haven't lost loved ones, they could get severely affected by Covid.

"To put it mildly, it was inappropriate. It was totally reprehensible behaviour."

Lockdown to deal with omicron cannot be ruled out, says Neil Ferguson

Wednesday 8 December 2021 10:36 , Chiara Giordano

A UK-wide lockdown to deal with the threat of the Omicron variant of coronavirus cannot be ruled out, although the current threat is unclear, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has said.

Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, whose data was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said the variant is concerning but it is still unknown what its impact will be on severe disease.

Read the full story here:

Lockdowns to deal with Omicron cannot be ruled out – Neil Ferguson

Plan B measures could see work from home rules return

Wednesday 8 December 2021 10:45 , Chiara Giordano

Additional Covid restrictions could be announced as early as today, including a return to home working, according to reports.

Political correspondents, citing Whitehall sources, have said work from home advice could be reintroduced as early as tomorrow, while a form of certification could also be on the cards.

Boris Johnson set to approve new Covid restrictions as omicron cases surge

Wednesday 8 December 2021 11:15 , Chiara Giordano

Boris Johnson and senior ministers are today expected to agree the introduction of tighter “plan B” restrictions at a meeting called in response to the surge in infections with the Omicron variant of Covid.

Plan B involves new guidance to work from home if possible, as well as the introduction of Covid passes for crowded venues such as nightclubs, and is intended for introduction if the NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed.

Follow our breaking news story for more updates:

Boris Johnson set to approve new Covid restrictions

Finland’s PM faces criticism for staying out clubbing till 4am despite Covid exposure

Wednesday 8 December 2021 11:35 , Chiara Giordano

Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin has come under fire for partying at a nightclub despite knowing she had come in contact with foreign minister Pekka Haavisto who had contracted Covid-19.

Photographs of her dancing with friends till about 4am at the Butchers nightclub in national capital Helsinki were published by Seiska, an entertainment magazine, sparking criticism.

Sravasti Dasgupta has more on this story:

Finland’s prime minister criticised for clubbing till 4am despite Covid exposure

Boris Johnson wants ‘dead cat’ plan B measures to distract from Christmas party, suggests Cummings

Wednesday 8 December 2021 11:55 , Chiara Giordano

Dominic Cummings has suggested that Boris Johnson has asked for so-called plan B restrictions to distract from the leaked video showing No 10 officials joking about a banned Christmas party.

The prime minister’s former top adviser claimed he would have asked for a “dead cat” to take attention away from the controversy over footage showing No 10 staff joking about holding a festive party during lockdown last December.

Adam Forrest has more details:

Boris Johnson wants ‘dead cat’ plan B to distract from No 10 party, Cummings suggests

PM apologises ‘unreservedly’ for video about No 10 parties

Wednesday 8 December 2021 12:13 , Sam Hancock

Boris Johnson is facing PMQs in the House of Commons today, where he has apologised for a video of his staff joking about an alleged party that took place at Downing Street during lockdown last year.

The PM also announced he has asked the cabinet secretary to investigate claims about the party, telling MPs he was “sickened” and “furious” at the footage of aides laughing about it.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer quickly responded by saying Mr Johnson’s “raises more questions than answers”.

The Labour leader said: “The prime minister, the government, spent the week telling the British public there was no party. All guidance was followed completely.

“Millions of people now think the prime minister was taking them for fools, that they were lied to. They are right aren’t they?”

Expected timings on Covid measures

Wednesday 8 December 2021 12:17 , Sam Hancock

The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith reports the following on measures expected to be announced later today, including a potential switch to plan B restrictions in England.

Watch: Lockdowns to deal with Omicron can’t be ruled out, says professor

Wednesday 8 December 2021 12:27 , Sam Hancock

Will there be another lockdown before Christmas?

Wednesday 8 December 2021 12:37 , Sam Hancock

As preventative measures against omicron establishing a foothold, Britons were initially again ordered to wear face masks in shops and on public transport, more countries have been added to the travel “red list” and new arrivals from overseas will be required to take a PCR test and potentially self-isolate for 10 days.

Boris Johnson is now expected to reintroduce working from home orders, something he was intially reluctant to do, as part of stricter “Plan B” measures in response to accelerating omicron cases.

The government is also revising its approach to booster jabs, making them available to all over-18s and halving the amount of time between second and third injections from six months to three.

But will there be another lockdown? Joe Sommerlad takes a look at everything we know.

Will there be a new UK lockdown before Christmas as part of Plan B?

BREAKING: Pfizer booster jab protects against omicron variant, tests indicate

Wednesday 8 December 2021 13:01 , Sam Hancock

A Pfizer booster jab appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, the company has said.

Early laboratory indicates that three doses of the Pfizer vaccine provide as much protection against the variant as two shots did against the original Covid virus.

The findings are broadly in line with a preliminary study published by researchers at the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa on Tuesday, saying that Omicron can partially evade protection from two doses of the vaccine, suggesting also that a third shot might help fend off infection.

Our science correspondent Samuel Lovett reports:

Pfizer booster jab protects against omicron variant, early tests indicate

What is Plan B and when could Covid restrictions be introduced?

Wednesday 8 December 2021 13:26 , Chiara Giordano

Boris Johnson is expected to announce the implementation of tighter “Plan B” social restrictions imminently in response to a surge in infections with the omicron variant of Covid-19.

Joe Sommerlad explains what Plan B is and when Covid restrictions could be introduced here:

What is Plan B and when could Covid restrictions be introduced?

Post-Covid booster observation waiting time under review, says PM

Wednesday 8 December 2021 13:56 , Chiara Giordano

Boris Johnson has said the observation period for people after their booster jabs is under review.

Speaking in the Commons, Conservative MP Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) stressed the importance of the booster vaccines before adding: "Speaking to clinical colleagues, one of the biggest hindrances is the 15 minutes people have to wait post-Pfizer.

"If we could reduce that or take that away it could release thousands of hours of clinicians' time.

"So will the prime minister ask the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) and the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) to look to see if it is safe to do so, particularly for those people receiving their third Pfizer booster?"

Mr Johnson replied: "He makes a very good point and I can tell him that we're in the process of reviewing the 15-minute waiting requirement for both booster doses, and we continue to be guided by the JCVI and MHRA."

Almost half of Scotland’s omicron cases in 20-39 age group

Wednesday 8 December 2021 14:08 , Chiara Giordano

Scotland’s confirmed cases of omicron have been in "relatively younger" people, with almost half in the 20-39 age group, according to the latest figures.

As of 5 December, there had been 71 confirmed cases of the new variant of coronavirus in Scotland.

The Public Health Scotland (PHS) data shows 48 per cent of omicron cases were in people aged 20-39, well above the 25 per cent of all Covid cases in that age group.

It said the "somewhat younger age profile" of the omicron cases reflects the "early detection of a large number of cases in events that typically attract people in these age groups".

Last week, the Scottish government said several omicron cases were linked to a Steps concert at the Hydro in Glasgow on 22 November.

Downing Street refuses to be drawn on Plan B measures

Wednesday 8 December 2021 14:42 , Chiara Giordano

Downing Street is still refusing to be drawn on whether Plan B measures are due to be put in place.

The prime minister's official spokesman said Boris Johnson had taken part in a "standard meeting" today, where he was presented with the latest data on coronavirus.

He said: "We would set up any changes should they be required in the normal way."

Asked whether people should go into work on Thursday, he added: "The restrictions are as set out, there are no restrictions on that, and as we have throughout we will update should any changes be necessary."

Kuwait detects first omicron case

Wednesday 8 December 2021 14:50 , Chiara Giordano

Kuwait has detected its first case of the omicron variant of coronavirus, according to a state news agency.

The variant was detected in a European traveller who arrived in Kuwait from an African country where the variant had been detected, KUNA reported, citing the health ministry's spokesman.

England records 115 more omicron cases

Wednesday 8 December 2021 15:01 , Chiara Giordano

A further 115 cases of the Covid-19 omicron variant have been reported across England, the UK Health Security Agency said.

It brings the total number of confirmed omicron cases in England to 448, the agency said.

UK omicron infections rise to 568 after first cases found in Northern Ireland

Wednesday 8 December 2021 15:21 , Chiara Giordano

There have been four additional cases of the omicron variant in Wales, the UKHSA said, and the first three cases reported in Northern Ireland.

Across the UK in total, there have been 131 additional cases, bringing the total number of confirmed omicron cases in the UK to 568, the agency said.

Boris Johnson has said his cabinet will be consulted before any move to Plan B measures

Wednesday 8 December 2021 15:44 , Chiara Giordano

Boris Johnson has said the cabinet will be consulted before new coronavirus restrictions are imposed in response to rising cases and the spread of the omicron variant.

The prime minister is believed to be considering measures including guidance to work from home and the introduction of domestic vaccine passports for events and large venues.

The cabinet's Covid-19 operations (Covid-O) committee is expected to meet today to consider the next steps.

Selfie-taking tourists risk giving orangutans Covid, say scientists

Wednesday 8 December 2021 16:07 , Chiara Giordano

Tourists in countries such as Indonesia are endangering wild orangutans by getting too close to the primates, researchers have found.

Humans can transmit Covid-19 and other viruses to primates such as orangutans and gorillas.

Lucy Thackray has more on this:

Selfie-taking tourists risk giving orangutans Covid, say scientists

Watch: Sobbing Allegra Stratton resigns over No 10 party video

Wednesday 8 December 2021 16:15 , Sam Hancock

Will there be a Downing Street Covid briefing today?

Wednesday 8 December 2021 16:25 , Sam Hancock

There have been whispers of a No 10 press conference, set to take place at around 5.30pm today, at which new Covid measures will likely be announced.

However, official confirmation of it is yet to be provided by Downing Street.

Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle earlier told MPs he had “repeatedly” asked Boris Johnson and his government to make announcements to the House before the media - and implored them to do so today.

It is so far unclear which route, if any, Mr Johnson will take today, after he told MPs earlier that a decision on enforcing harsher Covid measures would only be announced after consultation with his cabinet.

Further 51,342 Covid cases and 161 deaths in UK

Wednesday 8 December 2021 16:30 , Sam Hancock

An additional 51,342 cases of Covid-19 have been reported across the UK in the latest 24 hour period.

The same government data shows a further 161 people have died in Britain within 28 days of testing positive for the virus, taking the total to 145,987.

BREAKING: No 10 Covid press conference to go ahead

Wednesday 8 December 2021 17:03 , Sam Hancock

Boris Johnson will hold a coronavirus press conference at 6pm, a No 10 spokeswoman has said.

Little details have been given about the event, but it is widely thought the PM will announce harsher restrictions for England amid rising omicron cases.

Boris Johnson to host Covid press conference at No 10 today

In images: Covid around the country today

Wednesday 8 December 2021 17:23 , Sam Hancock

Christmas shoppers walk a past a sign saying ‘Mask Up For Christmas’ in Manchester (Getty)
Christmas shoppers walk a past a sign saying ‘Mask Up For Christmas’ in Manchester (Getty)
Margaret Keenan, left, and nurse May Parsons at University Hospital Coventry & Warwickshire, one year after Margaret became the first person in the UK to receive the Pfizer vaccine (PA)
Margaret Keenan, left, and nurse May Parsons at University Hospital Coventry & Warwickshire, one year after Margaret became the first person in the UK to receive the Pfizer vaccine (PA)
Allegra Stratton cries outside her home in north London as she resigns from the government, after footage emerged of her apparently joking about a Christmas party held during last year's lockdown (PA)
Allegra Stratton cries outside her home in north London as she resigns from the government, after footage emerged of her apparently joking about a Christmas party held during last year's lockdown (PA)
Jane Hudson from Hedley on the Hill attends the Centre for Life Vaccination Centre to receive her booster jab in Newcastle (Getty)
Jane Hudson from Hedley on the Hill attends the Centre for Life Vaccination Centre to receive her booster jab in Newcastle (Getty)

Why PM might be choosing now to go to plan B

Wednesday 8 December 2021 17:56 , Sam Hancock

One reason for the rapid shift towards Plan B could be figures from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) panel, which suggested at least 1,000 people a day may need hospital treatment for omicron by the end of the year without restrictions.

Leaked minutes of a Sage meeting held on Tuesday said the government should “urgently” consider the need for measures to reduce transmission of the virus and protect the NHS from “unsustainable pressure”, the BBC reported.

The peak of the omicron wave is “highly likely to be higher” than 1,000 to 2,000 variant-related admissions per day without new rules, the document said.

But the timing is being viewed in suspicion in Westminster, coming as Boris Johnson was forced to apologise after footage emerged of senior aides joking about a Christmas party in No 10 during last December’s lockdown.

At PMQs, senior Tory William Wragg challenged Mr Johnson about reports that a Cabinet meeting and press conference were planned “to initiate Covid winter Plan B”. The chairman of the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee told the PM: “Very few will be convinced by this diversionary tactic.”

Plan B Covid measures ‘not enough,’ critics suggest

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:02 , Sam Hancock

The Sunday Times’ health editor Shaun Lintern reports the following about potential incoming plan B restrictions:

Boris Johnson addresses the nation on Covid

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:13 , Sam Hancock

Boris Johnson has taken to the podium in Downing Street, where he quickly announced England is moving to plan B restrictions.

The PM says omicron is growing “much faster” than the previous delta variant.

He announces the reintroduction of work-from-home guidance, which will come into force from Monday.

“From Monday you should work from home if you can,” he tells reporters. “I know this will be hard at first for many people, but by reducing your contact in the workplace you will help slow transmission.”

Johnson says vaccine status passports will also be necessary for large venues as well as nightclubs.

BREAKING: Back to working from home back and vaccine passports for big events

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:14 , Sam Hancock

The prime minister’s decision to ramp up restrictions — after a meeting of the government’s Covid operations committee — comes in response to concerns over the transmissibility of the omicron variant and spread around the world, reports our political correspondent Ashley Cowburn.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday evening, Johnson said “we can’t yet assume” omicron is less severe than other variants.

Working from home back and Covid passports needed for big events, PM announces

Weakening of omicron measures announced

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:28 , Sam Hancock

Johnson says daily testing will be introduced instead of isolation for those who come into contact with infected people - including those infected with omicron.

“As omicron spreads in the community, we will also introduce daily tests for contacts instead of isolation,” he says, before going on to discuss vaccines.

“The single biggest thing that every one of us can do is to get our jabs and, crucially, to get that booster as soon as our turn arrives,” he tells reporters and the public.

“Let’s do everything we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones this winter, and reduce the pressures on our NHS.’’

He adds the government will “constantly monitor the data’’ but called on everyone to “play your part’’ and get a booster vaccine when available.

Daily tests to replace self-isolation for omicron contacts

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:29 , Sam Hancock

Following my last post, here’s Adam Forrest with more on some of what the PM has said.

Johnson’s government has changed the rules for contacts of Covid omicron variant cases – saying people can take daily tests to avoid 10 days of self-isolation.

“As omicron spreads in the community, we will also introduce daily tests for contacts instead of isolation, so we keep people safe while minimising disruption to daily life,” Mr Johnson told a No 10 press conference.

The prime minister said the government can’t yet assume that omicron is less severe than previous variants.

Daily Covid tests to replace self-isolation for omicron contacts, says Boris Johnson

Huge increase in Covid hospitalisations, Whitty says

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:32 , Sam Hancock

Over to England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who says there was an “incredibly steep” increase in cases in South Africa, where omicron was first detected, and “we are now seeing this translate into increases in hospitalisations”.

He says there is some data suggesting “around about a 300 per cent increase in hospitalisations over the last week”.

Prof Whitty adds that the data in the UK is clear that omicron cases here are also going up “incredibly fast now”, with a doubling rate between two and three days.

“That is an extraordinarily fast rate and you, therefore, can get with very small numbers to very large numbers really quite quickly.”

Watch: PM announces return to home working and Covid passports

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:33 , Sam Hancock

PM tells reporters government tries to be ‘clear’ in its guidance

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:36 , Sam Hancock

Johnson, taking questions from the press, says “we do our absolute best to make it as clear as possible”.

Referring to Covid guidelines, he says the government sometimes “gets it wrong” but that ministers are trying their best.

He talks about Allegra Stratton’s resignation, paying tribute to her work, which leads to Sky’s Beth Rigby questioning his leadership.

“Others are taking responsibility for actions you are responsible for,” she says.

The PM responds by saying he takes “full responsibility” for his government’s actions.

Omicron a ‘setback’ not ‘back at the beginning’ - Whitty

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:45 , Sam Hancock

Prof Chris Whitty says the omicron variant of coronavirus should be seen as a “setback”, not the UK being pushed “back to the beginning”.

He cites the vaccine as a reason for the situation being much more positive than it was this time last year.

Back to the PM who, when asked about Christmas parties that allegedly took place in No 10 last year, again insists all rules were followed by his staff at parties.

Johnson appears to refuse calls to investigate a “gathering” he was at last year, at which he is reported to have given a speech.

Pushed on whether he will limit cabinet secretary Simon Case to review parties he himself was not at, Johnson says that is a matter for Case.

Labour calls into questions PM’s leadership over parties scandal

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:50 , Sam Hancock

Over to the Commons now, where Labour’s shadow health secretary is appealing to Tory MPs about whether the UK has the “serious leadership our country needs”, following the video of Downing Street aides laughing about the reported Christmas party.

“I think members opposite really need to think about and search their own consciences about whether at this moment of serious crisis we have the serious leadership our country needs. And if not, you know what to do,” he says.

“It is hard to overstate how much damage this has done and how angry people feel. The businesses that were forced to close, the family weddings that were postponed, the chance to say goodbye at funerals missed, the workers, the educators, the key workers, people in the NHS and social care who ran into danger as other people were laughing in their office parties.

“It is what makes the laughter so stomach-turning. It feels as if they are laughing at us.”

Watch: Daily tests to replace self-isolation for omicron contacts

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:51 , Sam Hancock

Whitty says ‘it’s obvious’ things could’ve be done different

Wednesday 8 December 2021 18:58 , Sam Hancock

After being quizzed on the UK’s vaccine rollout, Johnson, Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance all pay tribute to the NHS and those administering vaccines.

Whitty said: “Inevitably, there have been bumps on the road and things we would do differently if we had done them again, that’s obvious.”

He also suggests journalists asking about the speed of booster vaccines perhaps “don’t have enough experience” of running national campaigns such as the Covid jab rollout.

That’s it, Johnson has ended the press conference.

Omicron ‘likely’ to replace delta as UK’s dominant variant

Wednesday 8 December 2021 19:06 , Sam Hancock

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said it is likely omicron will become the dominant strain in Britain, taking over the delta variant.

In a new risk assessment, it said it expects at least 50 per cent of Covid-19 cases to be caused by the omicron variant in the next two to four weeks.

The assessment also suggests omicron shows a “reduction in protection” given by previous infection or vaccination, but new studies are being undertaken to assess this further.

At present, there is “insufficient data” to make any assessment of protection against severe disease, or to assess the severity of illness caused by omicron, the UKHSA added.

The UKHSA said the number of cases which show S-gene target failure - a useful indictor for the presence of omicron - had increased to 705. And that the majority of these cases are located in London and the southeast.

True number of UK omicron cases ‘likely to be 10,000,’ says Javid

Wednesday 8 December 2021 19:08 , Sam Hancock

The new omicron variant of coronavirus is significantly more transmissible than delta - and more than a million people could be infected with it by the end of the month on current spread, the health secretary has warned.

Sajid Javid told MPs there were already 568 confirmed cases - but that the real number was “probably closer to 10,000”.

And he raised the prospect of more people having to go to hospital and “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS.

Jane Dalton reports:

True omicron tally ‘likely to be 10,000 and may hit million by year end’

Watch: Whitty acknowledges people ‘including colleagues’ angry over restrictions

Wednesday 8 December 2021 19:16 , Sam Hancock

Met will not investigate Downing Street Christmas party

Wednesday 8 December 2021 19:32 , Sam Hancock

Metropolitan Police have said they will not investigate allegations that Covid restrictions were broken at a party at 10 Downing Street on 18 December 2020.

In a statement, Scotland Yard said the decision was taken on the basis of the “absence of evidence” that rules were broken, and in line with Met policy not to investigate historical allegations of breaches of Covid regulations.

Our political editor Andrew Woodcock has this breaking report:

Met Police will not investigate 10 Downing Street Christmas party

Pubs concerned about ‘consumer confidence’ in venues after plan B

Wednesday 8 December 2021 19:40 , Sam Hancock

Let’s get some industry reaction to Boris Johnson’s announcement now.

Emma McClarkin, CEO of the British Beer and Pub Association, which is the leading trade association representing brewers and pubs, said:

“Make no mistake, this is a huge blow for our sector as it further undermines consumer confidence and is devastating for pubs based near offices and in town centres.

“The festive period is crucial to the recovery of our sector, so these restrictions could not have come at a more important trading time. They threaten the viability of pubs who will lose vital revenue over the Christmas period and so the government will need to look at providing support.”

However, she added: “We are pleased though that Covid passports are not applicable to the vast majority of pubs, as government has recognised this would have been totally unworkable. We still need clarifications and to see the detail on other aspects – including on face masks.

“Its important to remember that pubs are a safe environment with less than 2 per cent of Covid outbreaks traced to hospitality venues. We hope that whilst following the new guidelines, customers continue to visit their local pubs this Christmas to spend quality time with friends and family.”

Javid refuses to rule out further Covid measures to deal with omicron

Wednesday 8 December 2021 19:56 , Sam Hancock

Back in the Commons, Sajid Javid has not ruled out imposing further measures to stop the spread of Covid during the Christmas and New Year period.

Conservative MP Jane Stevens said her constituents in Wolverhampton North East have put up with an “enormous amount over the pandemic” and asked the health secretary whether he could reassure them “at least in the light of these measures that in the Christmas and New Year period they can make solid plans to see their family and their friends”.

Mr Javid replied: “Even if the [omicron] symptoms turn out to be less impactful than delta, if we see the growth we are currently seeing and we get to the kind of numbers that I mentioned earlier, it will be, yes, a smaller percentage in terms of severity but over a much larger number. So, I just ask her to take that into account the impact that might have on her constituents.

“I hope she accepts that by taking these measures now, these proportionate and balanced measures now, that we are in a much better place to avoid any further measures in the future.”

The health secretary leaves No 10 to deliver his statement to MPs in the Commons this evening (PA)
The health secretary leaves No 10 to deliver his statement to MPs in the Commons this evening (PA)

Covid rules ‘only work if we all’ abide by them, says Vallance

Wednesday 8 December 2021 20:02 , Sam Hancock

ITV News’ Anushka Asthana reports on Sir Patrick Vallance’s response to her question at tonight’s press conference.

He said it was “incredibly important” for people to follow the rules, as measures “only work if we all do it”, when asked by the broadcaster’s deputy political editor if scientists are worried about the impact of the government’s lockdown Christmas parties scandal on Britons following rules.

Watch: PM asked about inquiry into No 10 lockdown parties he attended

Wednesday 8 December 2021 20:15 , Sam Hancock

Wednesday 8 December 2021 21:23 , Andy Gregory

Our video team has compiled the key moments from Boris Johnson’s Downing Street briefing earlier this evening:

What is plan B and when will Covid restrictions come into force?

Wednesday 8 December 2021 21:28 , Andy Gregory

My colleagues Joe Sommerlad and Lamiat Sabin have this comprehensive explainer on the new measures announced by Boris Johnson tonight, and details around when they will come into force:

What is plan B and when will Covid restrictions come into force?

‘Bring back furlough’: Government urged to boost support for workers and businesses

Wednesday 8 December 2021 21:44 , Andy Gregory

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are facing calls to bolster support for workers and businesses whose livelihoods face a hit from the government’s new coronavirus restrictions, which include guidance to work from home and Covid passports for entry to venues.

Trade body UKHospitality’s chief Kate Nicholls warned that by impacting consumer confidence, the measures “risk devastating the hospitality sector amid its most important time of the year”

“We therefore desperately need support if we are to survive this latest set of restrictions and urge the government to stand behind our industry,” Ms Nicholls said. “That means full business rates relief, grants, rent protection and extended VAT reductions. Anything less would prove catastrophic.”

And the Trades Union Congress chief Frances O’Grady said the home-working measures “will hit jobs unless ministers bring back furlough”.

“Cleaners, receptionists, conference and banqueting staff and hospitality and retail workers will be short of work if people don't come into offices,” Ms O’Grady said. “Ministers must reassure workers in hard-hit sectors like hospitality, leisure and travel that their livelihoods are secure.”

She said a permanent short-time working scheme should be put in place for future crises and the “broken sick-pay system” should be fixed to support people to self-isolate.

‘It’s them and us again’: Tory MP warns No 10 row weakens its authority on Covid rules

Wednesday 8 December 2021 22:00 , Andy Gregory

Former Brexit minister David Davis has suggested the government's ability to enforce coronavirus restrictions had been weakened by the Christmas party row.

He told ITV's Robert Peston that “most of us think” the party took place, adding: “How are you going to prosecute people who don't obey it given the four previous parties?

“All this stuff about the prime minister resigning, I don't think that's on the cards, I think actually he didn't deliberately mislead the house, that would be mad. He's scatterbrain, but he's not stupid.

“I think the real issue is on the authority of the government to enforce a, as it were, a new lockdown because people look at this and say why should we? It's them and us again.”

Wednesday 8 December 2021 22:39 , Andy Gregory

For anyone with a pressing question about the government’s Covid travel rules, The Independent’s veteran travel correspondent Simon Calder has been hosting a Q&A session with readers.

You can catch up on the discussion here:

Testing times: your questions on the latest travel changes answered by Simon Calder

Wednesday 8 December 2021 22:42 , Andy Gregory

Palliative care doctor and author Rachel Clarke has urged people to obey the new plan B measures for the sake of those working in healthcare.

NHS Covid Pass app experiencing technical difficulties

Wednesday 8 December 2021 22:54 , Andy Gregory

The NHS Covid Pass app has experienced technical difficulties in the wake of the announcement that Covid passports will be needed to enter nightclubs and other venues in England from next Wednesday.

Users reported on social media being unable to download their domestic or travel passes from the NHS England app.

Those who tried to download the domestic pass were faced with a loading screen before it diverted to a page outlining how to get the pass, while others wanting to download their travel pass were presented with a message which said: “An unexpected error has occurred.”

Some users said they got a message which said: “Please try again later. There are currently issues with accessing the Covid Pass on the NHS app and website. We are investigating the issue and will update as soon as we can.”

Wednesday 8 December 2021 23:17 , Andy Gregory

Here’s the leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer’s response to the government’s new plan B coronavirus measures:

Tory Party admits party took place in CCHQ four days before alleged No 10 bash

Wednesday 8 December 2021 23:50 , Andy Gregory

The Conservative Party has admitted an event organised by Shaun Bailey’s mayoral campaign took place in the party’s Westminster headquarters on 14 December, while London was in Tier 2 restrictions.

According to the Times, the “raucous” party took place in the HQ’s basement, was attended by No 10 aides and featured dancing and wine-drinking into the early hours despite indoor social mixing being banned at the time.

A Tory spokesman said: “Senior CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters) staff became aware of an unauthorised social gathering in the basement of Matthew Parker Street organised by the Bailey campaign on the evening of December 14.

“Formal disciplinary action was taken against the four CCHQ staff who were seconded to the Bailey campaign.”

US disease chief says omicron cases so far remain ‘mild’ in most patients

00:20 , Andy Gregory

Of the more than 40 people identified as having contracted the omicron variant in the United States, just one has been hospitalised so far, according to the chief of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Dr Rochelle Walensky said “the disease is mild” in almost all of the cases seen so far, with reported symptoms mainly cough, congestion and fatigue.

She added that the data is very limited and the agency is working on a more detailed analysis of what the new mutant form of the coronavirus might hold for the US.

“What we generally know is the more mutations a variant has, the higher level you need your immunity to be ... We want to make sure we bolster everybody's immunity. And that's really what motivated the decision to expand our guidance," Dr Walensky said, referencing the recent approval of boosters for all adults in the US.

Should fines be issued to those who are not vaccinated against Covid? Tell us in our poll

00:49 , Andy Gregory

UK citizens are not legally required to have a vaccine unless they work in a health or care setting.

But should those who are putting other people at risk by refusing to get inoculated face fines as some countries have proposed?

Tell us your thoughts by voting in the poll in the article below:

Poll: Should fines be issued to those not vaccinated against Covid?

Government must closely monitor impact of new restrictions, CBI says

01:27 , Andy Gregory

Businesses want consistency in the government’s approach to new coronavirus measures, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has said.

“Fresh restrictions are a big setback for businesses, particularly for those in hospitality and retail who are in a critical trading period, as well as others such as transport,” said the CBI’s chief policy director, Matthew Fell.

“While Covid certification can support public health, careful implementation and enforcement will be required to assist businesses affected. It will be vital that the impact of these restrictions is closely monitored, and that the government is ready with targeted support as required.”

People will adhere to new rules ‘despite the government’, scientist says

02:14 , Andy Gregory

Most people will adhere to new coronavirus rules “despite the government”, one of the scientists on its SPI-B advisory group on behavioural science has said.

Opinion | I gave birth alone while Downing Street partied

03:10 , Andy Gregory

Our columnist Hannah Fearn reflects on giving birth in hospital alone in light of the allegations of a party in No 10, writing:

“It was miserable, but it couldn’t be helped. Luckily, after a quick and easy labour, my story ended happily, but I’m still angry. No, I’m furious. Not because I was asked to do the right thing, but that those who ask so much of us, we now know, expect so very little of themselves.”

You can read her piece in full here:

I gave birth alone while Downing Street partied | Hannah Fearn

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