Britain records highest number of daily virus cases in 11 months as UKHSA warns new variant infections could pass 1m by end of DecemberMichael Gove hints at tougher Covid restrictions amid ‘deeply concerning’ omicron spread
Michael Gove appeared to open the door to new Covid restrictions on Friday as he said the UK faces a “deeply concerning situation” because of the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
“We absolutely need to keep everything under review”, said Mr Gove, the Communities Secretary, after chairing a Cobra meeting with devolved administration leaders.
The comments suggest it is possible tougher restrictions could be adopted soon, with government officials considering contingency measures described as “Plan C”.
Mr Gove has this week been pushing Cabinet colleagues to support going further than the “Plan B” measures announced on Wednesday, according to multiple government sources.
It came as the UK announced more than 58,000 new Covid cases on Friday – the highest daily tally since January – and omicron cases doubled in a day.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) estimates that the current rate of growth, if sustained, will see omicron become dominant by mid-December. If the rate continues unabated, there could be more than a million infections before New Year’s Day.t
Sage revealed earlier in the week that even if omicron is only half as deadly as delta, the volume of infections may overwhelm the NHS. On Friday, Nicola Sturgeon warned that a “tsunami” of omicron cases was approaching.
Scotland is slightly ahead of England in its omicron outbreak, and data released on Fri show that one in eight (13.3 per cent) of all cases in Scotland are omicron – double what the figure was one day earlier.
Ms Sturgeon told Scots to cancel Christmas work parties and to self-isolate for 10 days if someone in their household gets Covid-19, “even if they test negative”
Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, announced that rules in the country would be reviewed every week because of omicron’s rapid spread. Both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Drakeford have often moved earlier than Boris Johnson on Covid restrictions in the past.
They have called on the Treasury to promise extra funds if they decide to announce economic support to help those impacted by the restrictions.
The Treasury has resisted promising that to date, with sources arguing some Covid financial support schemes remain in place even though the furlough scheme does not.
However, government officials in charge of working on Covid policy are already considering what extra measures could be introduced to counter omicron’s spread.
Further restrictions have been broadly called “Plan C” by the media and commentators, but the Government is not using the term internally yet, with relevant officials looking at an array of possible means to tackle the spread.
Last night, it was revealed in leaked documents seen by The Guardian that “stringent national measures” need to be imposed by next week to avoid hospital admissions passing the peak of last winter. Sajid Javid reportedly received a presentation by the UKHSA on Tuesday calling for measures to be implemented by Dec 18, even if the omicron variant was less serious than delta.
The Department for Health would not comment on the documents, insisting that no decisions had been made on further restrictions
Downing Street insisted on Friday that ministers were not about to announce a major new increase in restrictions for England.
However the speed at which omicron is spreading, with cases doubling as quickly as every two days across the UK, has alarmed ministers.
Mr Gove said: “The Cobra meeting I’ve just chaired with first ministers of all the devolved administrations was presented with some very challenging new information.
“We know that we have the highest number of Covid infections across the UK recorded today since Jan 9. We know the Omicron variant is doubling every two to three days in England, and possibly even faster in Scotland.
“We know that 30 per cent of reported cases in London are the omicron variant, and of course we only identified omicron in this country a fortnight ago.”
Eight of the top 10 omicron hotspots in the country are in London, with Manchester and West Northamptonshire the other two.
Possible tougher Covid restrictions
Asking people to check in with their NHS apps when they enter pubs or restaurants, which used to be required earlier in the year, is one early option for further restrictions.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, was pushing for that to be announced with the other “Plan B” measures on Wednesday, according to the Daily Mail.
Face masks being worn in other settings not currently required, such as restaurants and pubs, is another option, as is expanding the venues that must ask for Covid passports.
Then there is a string of more interventionist moves, which can be identified by looking back at what restrictions were in place earlier in the year.
These would, in theory, be steps like limiting the amount of social contact – such as putting hard caps on group gathering numbers – and bringing in social distancing rules.
Downing Street sources made clear yesterday these are not currently being actively considered, with ministers for months arguing the economic impact of such steps would be significant.
Boosters 75pc effective against mild omicron
Health officials revealed on Friday that booster jabs give up to 75 per cent protection from mild omicron infection, compared to 95 per cent protection against delta.
The UKHSA conducted the world’s first analysis to calculate vaccine effectiveness against omicron and revealed that after two doses, vaccine effectiveness against mild disease is just 40 per cent for Pfizer. Two doses of AstraZeneca were found to give “no protective effect” four months after the second dose.
The agency also revealed today that omicron is up to eight times more likely to reinfect someone who has already had Covid than delta, with seven per cent of omicron cases being re-infections.
The highly transmissible variant is also more of a danger in the household, and a person living with an infected person is more than three times as likely to catch it off them than they would be if it was delta.
Overall, a person is twice as likely to pass omicron on to someone else than they are for delta, the UKHSA found.