Boris Johnson not planning new COVID restrictions before Christmas

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Wednesday December 15, 2021.
Number 10 refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown on Monday. (PA Images)

The prime minister has said he does not intend to reintroduce coronavirus restrictions before Christmas.

Speaking after a five-hour cabinet meeting to discuss the latest Omicron data, Boris Johnson said the government would not hesitate to take further action if necessary, adding that he was monitoring the data “hour by hour”.

He said: “Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS.”

The PM has not ruled out tightening restrictions after Christmas Day, with multiple sources reporting that measures are likely between Christmas and New Year.

Ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, as the government refused to rule out introducing further restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus Picture date: Monday December 20, 2021.
London, the region with the highest number of Omicron cases in the UK, has reported an increase in hospitalisations as the variant spreads. (PA Images)

At the weekend, Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) advice indicating that hospital admissions could hit 3,000 per day and risk overwhelming the NHS was published.

In the Sage minutes, experts warned delaying action until January would dampen the impact on hospitalisations and deaths,

The UK recorded its highest ever number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on Friday at 93,045, and experts say the true figure is likely to be far higher.

Some 91,743 infections were confirmed on Monday.

Read more: Government is 'exploiting' NHS workers and treating them like 'machines', says open letter to Boris Johnson

At the weekend, Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) advice indicating that hospital admissions could hit 3,000 per day and risk overwhelming the NHS was published.

In the Sage minutes, experts warned delaying action until January would dampen the impact on hospitalisations and deaths,

(Yahoo News UK/Flourish/Government data)
(Yahoo News UK/Flourish/Government data)

Gloomy modelling by scientists has triggered resistance from some cabinet ministers, with chancellor Rishi Sunak reported to be reluctant to announce more financial support due to being unsure about the modelling’s accuracy.

Foreign secretary Liz Truss and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng are also said to be among ministers expressing concern.

A spokesperson for the prime minister refused to deny tensions on Monday, insisting it is “one of the roles of ministers to scrutinise any advice and evidence provided and consider it” and “strike the right balance between protecting lives and livelihoods”.

Read more: Omicron symptoms: South African doctor on three most common signs of new variant

Current COVID restrictions include work from home guidance, vaccine certification or negative lateral flows for entering large venues or events, and mandatory face coverings in certain settings.

The government has also rapidly accelerated the booster programme, hitting nearly 1m doses in one day over the weekend.

However, at the weekend it emerged that Johnson is considering three new options to slow the spread of the virus in response to the deteriorating situation.

Option one would see families asked to limit indoor contacts without legal enforcement, which would not require the prime minister to recall parliament to pass the new legislation.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (L) leave 10 Downing Street in central London on September 1, 2020 to walk through to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to attend the first weekly meeting of the cabinet since the summer recess. - The UK Parliament returned to work on September 1 with the governing Conservative Party having taking a summer of hits in the polls bringing them level with the main opposition Labour Party amid a series of embarrassing U-turns and economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Number 10 refused to deny tension in the cabinet over SAGE modelling that Omicron infections could overwhelm the NHS. (PA Images)

Option two would mandate curbs on household mixing, see the return of social distancing, and the implementation of the controversial curfews on pubs and restaurants.

Option three, the most extreme option, would plunge the nation back into a full lockdown.The last two options would require the prime minister to recall parliament to enable MPs to debate the new measures and vote on them.

However, Johnson’s ability to convince his party to pass the restrictions is in question, after he was forced to rely on Labour MPs to pass COVID measures last week following a huge rebellion by 100 of his own MPs. Last week Independent SAGE, a group of non-government experts, called for a circuit breaker lockdown to curb rising case numbers in the run up to Christmas.

 The Stay Home, Save Lives billboard seen displayed in Central London.
England remains under lockdown as the government battles to keep the coronavirus pandemic under control. (Photo by Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
Reports suggest that a full lockdown is one of the options Boris Johnson is considering in response to surging Omicron infections. (PA Images)

“Omicron is doubling so fast that sheer numbers will v likely outweigh any advantage of reduced severity (if it exists),” said Professor Christina Pagel from Independent SAGE on Twitter.

“To prevent NHS being overwhelmed in a few weeks & for a safer Xmas we need to act now. Not next week, not after Xmas, now.

“We are calling for an immediate *10 day* circuit break to protect NHS & enable safer mixing over Xmas (25-28 December).

“Reassess over Xmas to see what is needed then, when much more info available. Situation changing so fast, can’t plan far ahead.”

Watch: COVID-19: Boris Johnson holds firm at news conference but government medics beg public to reconsider their plans