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Boris Johnson faced anger from Tory MPs and business chiefs about his chief medical adviser’s warning to reduce socialising as more than 88,000 Covid-19 cases were recorded – the highest seen in the pandemic.
The Prime Minister rejected claims he was imposing a “lockdown by stealth” but he urged people to be “cautious” about their activities over Christmas.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is cutting short a trip to the United States to hold talks with business chiefs in response to fears the Omicron wave could have a devastating impact on pubs and restaurants over the festive period.
The moves came as Wales said it would introduce tougher rules after Christmas in order to limit the spread of Omicron.
From December 27, nightclubs will close and restrictions will be imposed on businesses such as two-metre social distancing in offices, the Welsh Government said.
Mr Johnson said England’s “balanced and proportionate” Plan B had “sensible restrictions”, coupled with the escalation of the booster jab campaign.
“We’re not closing things, but what we are saying is people should be cautious, and they should think about their activities in the run-up to Christmas,” he said.
“Nobody wants to get Omicron and be unwell and be forced to isolate. But the fastest route back to normality is for everybody to get boosted now.”
On a visit to a vaccination centre in Kent, he said he would do “whatever I have to, to protect the public” but it was a “very different position” to previous waves of coronavirus because of the vaccination campaign.
On Wednesday, a further 745,183 booster and third doses were recorded – the highest figure yet but below the rate of around a million a day needed if every adult is to be offered a jab by the end of the year.
In a letter to Mr Johnson, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the spread of Omicron was outpacing the rollout of the booster campaign and warned that “restrictions on the operation of higher-risk settings, while of course undesirable, may now be unavoidable”.
In other developments:
– Omicron now accounts for nearly three-quarters of new cases of Covid-19 in London, analysis suggests, while the number of hospital patients with Covid-19 in the capital has risen 26% in a week, up from 1,163 to 1,460 on December 16.
– The Metropolitan Police are to make contact with two people who attended a gathering at the Conservative Party HQ in London on December 14 2020 in relation to alleged breaches of coronavirus regulations.
– It emerged the Queen has cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family party next week as a precaution with a Buckingham Palace source suggesting it could put too many people’s Christmas arrangements at risk.
– Five of the 10 Premier League matches scheduled for the weekend have been scratched from the schedule.
Prof Whitty told the public at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday to prioritise events over the festive period.
Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, Conservative MP for Winchester Steve Brine said: “At a stroke the chief medical officer changed Government policy and put this country, certainly hospitality… into effective lockdown.
“Can I ask – yes or no – is what Professor Whitty said last night now the policy of this Government? That we should socialise carefully? What, in practical legal terms, does that mean?
“And on support, because advisers are now running the show – I bet none of them run a business facing complete ruin as a result of what was said last night – the Treasury is going to have to do more, because otherwise we risk ruining and wasting the amazing support that Her Majesty’s Treasury gave last year.”
Greg Parmley, chief executive of music industry body Live, said: “The current lockdown by stealth is quickly pushing the live music sector to the edge.”
Prof Whitty told the Health and Social Care Committee on Thursday that he did not wish to dictate to people what they can and cannot do.
But he added: “This is about saying to people, look, this is a period to prioritise. And also to be clear, (this) was a message the Prime Minister also said last night.”