Omicron: Post-Christmas lockdown 'can't be ruled out', says No 10

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a press conference in London's Downing Street after ministers met to consider imposing new restrictions in response to rising cases and the spread of the Omicron variant. Picture date: Wednesday December 8, 2021.
Number 10 refused to rule out a post-Christmas lockdown on Thursday. (PA Images)

The government has said it "can't rule anything out" over whether a potential lockdown will be needed after Christmas to deal with a significant wave of COVID driven by the new Omicron variant.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson introduced the winter 'Plan B' of COVID restrictions and guidance, describing them as "proportionate and the responsible thing [to do]" in response to Omicron.

However, experts continue to be worried, with one scientist advising government warning that the UK is going to see a “really rather large wave of Omicron” and deaths in the next few months.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “We’re getting large numbers of cases and that will result in a large number of hospitalisations and, unfortunately, it will result in a large number of deaths, I’m pretty sure of that.

“What happens next? It’s pretty clear the virus hasn’t done with evolution. It’s going to continue to evolve."

Asked if the government had a "Plan C" if the situation deteriorates further and whether that would include a lockdown, a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said nothing could be discounted at this stage.

(left to right) Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, hold a press conference in London's Downing Street after ministers met to consider imposing new restrictions in response to rising cases and the spread of the Omicron variant. Picture date: Wednesday December 8, 2021.
Boris Johnson announced new COVID-19 restrictions alongside chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance. (PA Images)

"We think this is the right, 'Plan B' is a sensible proportionate step, given what we know about the characterises variants at this stage," the spokesperson said on Thursday.

"The prime minister was clear yesterday that we will continue to keep our our response under review as we find out more about this variant, so we can’t rule anything out at this point.

"But we believe these are the right approach given them a balanced approach."

Read more:

Plan B explained: How vaccine passports and new COVID rules will affect your Christmas

PM: People shouldn't go to the office – but can go to Christmas parties

Behind the scenes on a calamitous day for Boris Johnson

Number 10 confirmed that the anticipated timings around the review of restrictions – due to happen at the beginning of January – was not because Boris Johnson was worried about "cancelling" Christmas for a second year running.

"Public health is the key factor in any decision making on something like coronavirus... rather than any specific dates or events," said the prime minister's spokesperson.

"This simply is that we believe that the sensible and balanced response to emerging characteristics throughout this varied and the need to slow growth whilst we get more time to get jabs into people's arms."

Experts fear Omicron could be significantly more contagious than the Delta variant with scientists also warning that the virus' high level of mutations may enable it to reduce the efficacy of vaccines.

Early data also indicates that reinfection rates with Omicron of those who have recently had COVID are significant.

The Catch-up sign up
The Catch-up sign up

The rate of spread of the virus is already feared to be doubling every two or three days. Health secretary Sajid Javid has warned there could be a million cases by the end of the month.

In one area of South Africa where the strain is particularly widespread, but with low vaccination rates, hospitalisations increased by 300% in a week – although some scientists say it could be weeks until it becomes clear how severe the disease is.

On Wednesday, the prime minister said: "South Africa is also seeing hospitalisations roughly doubling in a week, meaning that we can't yet assume Omicron is less severe than previous variants."

Javid told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday: “I think it is proportionate, actually, when you look at these measures, whether it is the working-from-home guidance, the rules around face masks, the NHS COVID pass, and all of these."

Health Secretary Sajid Javid updating MPs on the governments coronavirus plans, in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Monday December 6, 2021.
Health secretary Sajid Javid was heckled in the House of Commons as he announced the government's plan to move to 'Plan B'. (PA Images)

However, the new measures have triggered backlash about the logic of the government's guidance, including from Conservative MPs.

Javid was heckled in parliament on Wednesday, with some of his own MPs shouting "resign" as he announced the new plans - as well as questioning how the public would comply following the Downing Street Christmas party scandal.

“What I am really concerned about is that it is unquestionably the case that over the last few weeks the government’s credibility, whether it is on Paterson or on the Christmas parties, has taken a hit," said former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper.

“Why should people at home listening to the prime minister and the secretary of state do things that people working in Number 10 Downing Street are not prepared to do?”

The Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street, Westminster, London.
Senior Conservative MPs have questioned how closely the public will follow new restrictions following the Downing Street Christmas party scandal. (PA Images)

Senior Tory MP and former minister David Davies said: "How are you going to prosecute people who don’t obey it given the four previous parties?”

Other Tory MPs have questioned the logic of the government's measures, given they have asked people to work from home but insist people should not cancel events like work Christmas parties.

John Redwood, MP for Wokingham, said: “It doesn’t make any sense. It was clearly contradictory. The government should think again.”

And Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, said: “For a government which claims to follow the science, I think they’ve lost their marbles. The restrictions are incoherent and irrational.”

Watch: Pressure on PM grows as senior Tories criticise lockdown Christmas party and Plan B