Boris Johnson has been urged to outline his post-Christmas Covid strategy, as a health minister warned there is “uncertainty” around people making new year’s eve plans.
The Prime Minister has reassured people that no further restrictions will be introduced before December 25 given there is not enough evidence on the severity of the Omicron variant and hospital admission to justify stricter measures.
But with the situation constantly being reviewed, Conservative frontbencher Gillian Keegan urged caution over the days ahead.
Asked on LBC about going ahead with a gathering or party on December 31, the health minister said: “There is uncertainty. We can’t predict what the data is going to tell us before we’ve got the data.
“We are trying to take a balanced and proportionate approach so that people can see their families over Christmas to try and plan some stuff.
“But of course it is difficult to anticipate.”
She said the uncertainty in the data is “particularly” around severity.
But Labour pressed for decisions to be made as soon as possible.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Jon Ashworth told Sky News: “People are anticipating that some form of restrictions will come in post-Christmas, and I think we just need to give people certainty.
“People need to know where they stand. Businesses have got to make decisions about what stock to get in in the run-up to new year’s eve, so I think it would be reasonable for the Government to produce a road map, if you like, a plan of what they think may well be anticipated in terms of further restrictions post-Christmas so people know where we stand.
“We’ve still got confusion at the moment.”
Elsewhere, it was reported that UK Government scientists are set to conclude that Omicron is causing a milder disease than the Delta strain in most Britons.
Politico’s London Playbook said the UK Health Security Agency is expected to publish early real-world data on the disease’s severity before Christmas, with its findings also suggesting Omicron is not necessarily mild enough to avoid large numbers of hospital admissions.
The Government has also announced the self-isolation period for vaccinated and unvaccinated people who test positive for coronavirus has been cut to a week, which will give more people the chance to spend time with loved ones over Christmas.
From Wednesday, those in England who receive negative lateral flow results on day six and day seven of their self-isolation period will no longer have to self-isolate for the full 10 days.
But those who are unvaccinated close contacts of positive cases must still isolate for 10 days, the UKHSA later clarified.
Ms Keegan, asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme how much difference she expects the change to make in hospitals and care homes, said: “Obviously it will relieve some of the pressure, but obviously we still have to monitor very closely, because we know we had, in the care sector for example, we had quite a lot of vacancies already, so we do monitor that very closely.”
Professor Mike Tildesley said people still needed to be cautious in the run-up to the holidays.
Speaking to Sky News on whether there should be new restrictions, Prof Tildesley, a member of Sage subgroup the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) and an associate professor at the University of Warwick, said: “It’s a really difficult time of year, of course, as a modeller you always say if you’re going to introduce restrictions then, of course, the sooner you introduce it, the more effective any of those restrictions are going to be.
“But of course at this time of year it’s really challenging, because given what happened last year, the very late introduction of restrictions a few days before Christmas, I think that’s quite damaging for people’s mental health and wellbeing, so I suspect there’s one eye on that, one eye on allowing families to be together, but of course we do need to remember the Omicron variant has not yet gone away.”
He added there was a risk in associating with vulnerable people.
Dr Margaret Harris, from the World Health Organisation, told Times Radio: “Certainly have Christmas and certainly enjoy that time, but keep it small – don’t go too big, large gatherings where there are lots of people coming from all over the place, and that’s where mostly a lot of the transmission occurs.”
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair answered “no” when asked if he would have introduced restrictions this Christmas, telling Times Radio this was not because “some great piece of data” would emerge, but because of the “pain” of a full lockdown and because of the different categories of people when it comes to vaccination.
He also suggested that what the Government is doing is a “gamble”, and said of people who are unvaccinated but eligible: “You are not just irresponsible, I mean you’re an idiot.”
Figures from NHS England show that 1,904 people were in hospital in London with Covid-19 as of December 21, the highest number since March 2 and is up 41% from a week earlier.
Across England, 6,902 patients were in hospital with Covid-19 on December 21 – the highest number since November 10 and up 7% week-on-week.
In Wales, more Covid restrictions are expected to be announced on Wednesday as the Welsh Government meets to discuss hospitality measures.
The Northern Ireland executive will also decide on the same day what “level of asks” will be made of the public to curb the latest surge in Covid-19.
Scotland’s traditional Hogmanay celebrations will be cancelled and live sports will be “effectively spectator-free” for three weeks from Boxing Day as part of new Covid-19 restrictions, Nicola Sturgeon said on Tuesday.
The First Minister also introduced new curbs on hospitality and urged people to “stay at home as much as possible” until at least the first week of January.