Boris Johnson on Wednesday announced a package of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, which is spreading rapidly across the UK.
Despite the UK’s relatively high vaccination coverage, the lack of clear data on Omicron has prompted the emergency measures by ministers concerned about the possible impact of a new surge of cases on the health service and wider society.
Why is Johnson introducing new restrictions in England?
Last month in response to the initial emergence of Omicron, the government announced an initial wave of measures in England, including travel restrictions, the introduction of mandatory face coverings on public transport and new self-isolation rules.
Yet the introduction of tighter rules follows growing concern within the scientific community regarding the transmissibility and severity of the new variant and its interaction with existing Covid-19 vaccines.
While Omicron only makes up a small fragment of daily infections in the UK, 568 cases have been identified and the number of new infections is doubling every three days, according to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. This could mean Omicron replaces Delta as the dominant variant “within a few weeks”, official minutes from the committee said.
Prof Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the so-called Plan B measures would slow Omicron’s growth.
“What we hope will happen is a certain slowing of that growth rate, which will buy time for getting boosters into people and also buy time for better assessment of the risk of Omicron’s intrinsic severity,” said Ferguson.
Government officials have told the FT that the decision to introduce new rules was triggered in part by the need to gain control of the media narrative following persistent negative headlines surrounding the scandal of whether there was a party in Downing Street last December in violation of official guidance.
What are the new restrictions and how long will they last?
The government will reintroduce the guidance to work from home from Monday while the legal requirement to wear face masks has been extended to venues such as theatres and cinemas and will come into effect from Friday.
“We’ll also make the NHS Covid pass mandatory for entry into nightclubs, and venues where large crowds gather,” Johnson told reporters, adding that the measures would provisionally apply from a week’s time in unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people; unseated outdoor settings that hold more than 1,000 guests; and any venue with capacities of more 10,000.
A negative lateral flow test would be sufficient proof for a NHS Covid pass and the pass will be valid with proof of two Covid-19 vaccine doses, but this advice would be kept under review as the rollout progresses, Johnson said.
The regulations will automatically expire six weeks after being introduced and a review will be carried out after three weeks, the health department said.
What is the situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
The devolved nations have in recent months taken similar approaches to England on international travel, for example, but have differed in their domestic guidance.
In Scotland, members of the public have been encouraged to work from home where possible, and the use of vaccine passports has been introduced within settings such as nightclubs, with users expected to illustrate proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.
Wales has adopted similar measures. Since November 15, vaccine passports have been required for all over-18s entering venues such as theatres. In addition, individuals over the age of 12 have been required to wear a face covering in indoor settings, with exceptions made for hospitality outlets such as pubs.
In Northern Ireland, some rules regarding group gatherings remain, with no more than 30 people allowed in private settings. The use of face coverings is also mandatory on public transport, and hospitality settings such as pubs are required to collect customer details for test and trace purposes.
What has been the reaction to the new measures in England?
The new guidelines have been met with some support, including from the Labour party, which signalled it would back them when the measures are put to MPs in the Commons next week.
However, some scientists have warned other stricter measures may be necessary if Plan B does little to dampen the rise in Omicron infections.
“Plan B won’t contain this wave but it will help to slow it down,” added Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and member of Sage. “I don’t think you should rule anything out because the virus is a force of nature and it will do what it wants to do”.
“We’re in a much better position in terms of immunity than in January, which means that per case we’ll have many fewer deaths than we would have had before,” he added. “But if we have an even more transmissible variant and a lot more mixing than we had last winter, then we could end up with substantial numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.”
Some within the business community have raised concerns about the speed at which new measures have been announced and the timing of the restrictions during the crucial Christmas trading period.
Matthew Fell, policy director at the CBI business group, said the fresh restrictions were “a big setback for businesses, particularly for those in hospitality and retail who are in a critical trading period”.
“It will be vital that the impact of these restrictions is closely monitored and that the government is ready with targeted support as required,” he added.
Martin Williams, chief executive of Gaucho restaurant group, said that the hospitality industry was approaching its busiest two weeks of the year: “The government should consider why any additional restrictions are truly necessary in light of genuine science and not a knee-jerk reaction to deflect attention from their Christmas parties last year.”
Johnson is also likely to come under renewed scrutiny from Tory backbenchers, several of whom have repeatedly voiced concerns over the financial costs of new restrictions as well as wider public health impacts in areas such as NHS waiting times and the wellbeing of young people.
“News of restrictions has been met with outrage to be honest”, argued one Conservative MP. “How do we pay for all of this and can we keep stopping and starting the economy every time a new variant comes? That is not sustainable”.