PM downplays claims of split with experts in face of ‘considerable’ Omicron wave

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

Boris Johnson has downplayed suggestions he is at odds with Professor Chris Whitty over advice for the public as he warned the country is facing a “considerable wave” of the Omicron variant.

The Prime Minister also deflected questions over the future of his premiership, insisting people want him to focus on fighting Covid-19.

The comments came as the UK reported more than 90,000 new Covid cases in another record daily total.

During a visit to a vaccination centre in Hillingdon, west London, on Friday, Mr Johnson said Omicron is “a very serious threat to us now” – and called on people to get their booster jabs.

“We are seeing a considerable wave coming through and people have got to be prepared and they have got to understand what it entails,” he said.

The PM suggested he and England’s chief medical officer Prof Whitty are on the same page on Covid, after some Tory MPs claimed experts are “running the show”.

HEALTH Coronavirus Infections
(PA Graphics)

Asked about conflicting messages from the Government and its advisers on socialising over the Christmas break, Mr Johnson said: “What both Chris Whitty and I are saying is that there is a big wave of Omicron coming through.

“People need to be prudent. You need to think about your budget of risk.”

Earlier, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said Prof Whitty’s “integrity and independence” as a Government adviser should be respected.

According to the Government’s latest figures, a further 93,045 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in the UK as of 9am on Friday, the highest daily total recorded since the pandemic began and a rise of 4,669 on the previous record set on Thursday.

The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 in London, which has seen some of the biggest rises in cases in the last seven days, has climbed to 1,534, up 28.6% on last week.

The Government’s dashboard showed that 341 more people with Covid were in hospital in the capital on December 17, rising from 1,193 on December 10.​

Across the UK, 7,611 people are in hospital with the virus, a rise of 163 patients (2%) on the previous week.

In other developments:

– Nicola Sturgeon said Omicron is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in Scotland – warning “the tsunami I warned about a week ago is now starting to hit us”.

– Welsh leader Mark Drakeford hinted at the prospect of further restrictions in hospitality settings after Christmas, such as the return of the “rule of six”.

– The leader of Westminster City Council said people cancelling plans in the run-up to Christmas is having a “devastating” impact on hospitality and entertainment businesses in London’s West End.

Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics estimated around one in 60 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to December 11, unchanged from the previous week.

The percentage testing positive is thought to have risen in the latest week in eastern England and London, but decreased in north-east England along with Yorkshire and the Humber.

HEALTH Coronavirus Normal
(PA Graphics)

Asked during his visit to Hillingdon if he would resign if it was in the interest of the Conservative Party, Mr Johnson said he is focused on fighting Covid-19.

He said: “What we’re focusing on is getting the job done. What we’re focusing on is trying to make sure that we not only have the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, the fastest booster rollout, as we’ve already done, but that we’re able – because of the Get Boosted Now campaign – to avert some of the more damaging consequences of Omicron.

“That is what the Government is engaged in doing now. That is what I am focused on. And, do you know what, I think that is what people would want me to be focused on right now.”

Mr Dowden also said the country faces “very difficult times”, but argued the Government currently has “the balance right” on restrictions when asked if measures will be tightened in England ahead of Christmas.

Mr Johnson has rejected claims the Government is imposing a “lockdown by stealth” but urged people to be “cautious” about their activities over Christmas.

The impact of the measures already taken have hit pubs and restaurants hard, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak forced to cut short a work trip to the United States to fly home for talks with the sector.

However Mr Dowden indicated on Friday morning that no new money had yet been assigned to support businesses over the Christmas period.

Oliver Dowden
Oliver Dowden indicated no new money has been assigned to support businesses (James Manning/PA)

He said: “We have already put support in place. Of course, we watch this hour by hour, day by day, and I know the Chancellor is very closely engaged, but at the moment we have appropriate supports in place.”

Mr Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, told a press conference that financial support of up to £60 million would be available to businesses materially affected by new restrictions in the country from December 27.

The measures include ordering nightclubs to close and a return to the two-metre social distancing rule in offices.

But along with Ms Sturgeon, who earlier this week allocated a £100 million fund “for the impact businesses are already suffering”, he warned the devolved nations need help from the UK Government.

He said: “Our ability to provide and sustain longer-term economic support during this new wave of this ongoing public health emergency is severely constrained by the current position of the UK Treasury and its refusal to open vital support schemes, such as furlough.”

Ms Sturgeon said the UK Government should put the “type and scale of financial support available earlier in the pandemic” back in place.

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