UK

Boris refuses to rule out tougher Covid curbs at Christmas

Downing Street has confirmed it is intending to hold its own Christmas party later this month after Boris Johnson this morning refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs over the festive period.  

The Prime Minister dodged when he was asked if he was certain the alarming spread of the Omicron variant would not require harsher restrictions, as he just insisted this Christmas will be ‘better’ than last year.

 ‘This Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas,’ he said during a visit to Merseyside. 

The tighter rules on masks and self-isolation are due to be reviewed by December 18 – meaning that people might not know until a week before Christmas Day what limits they face. 

Despite the uncertainty, Number 10 said at lunchtime that it is planning a Christmas party for staff, with the PM’s Official Spokesman telling reporters: ‘We haven’t confirmed any dates at the moment. I think there is an intention to have a Christmas party this year.’

Whitehall sources have suggested there is little prospect of the current restrictions being loosened before the New Year, as scientists try to establish the scale of the threat posed by the variant.   

There are warnings today that the incoming Omicron wave could be as bad or worse for the NHS than the second coronavirus peak last winter even if the super-mutant variant is weaker than its predecessors.

Real-world data suggests the highly-evolved variant is three-and-a-half times more likely to infect people than Delta because of its combination of vaccine resistance, increased infectiousness and antibody escape.

There have been only 246 official Omicron cases confirmed in the UK so far, but there are likely more than a thousand already, according to Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia.

Professor Hunter said he expected it to become the dominant variant ‘probably within the next weeks or a month’, based on how rapidly it is outpacing Delta in the South African epicentre.

Boris Johnson (pictured in front of the Downing Street tree) today refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs at Christmas

In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent

In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent

Total Covid cases are rising fastest in London and the South East of England with most of the Omicron infections linked to travellers flying back into the UK

Total Covid cases are rising fastest in London and the South East of England with most of the Omicron infections linked to travellers flying back into the UK

There have been only 269 official Omicron cases confirmed in the UK so far, but there are likely more than a thousand already, according to Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia

There have been only 269 official Omicron cases confirmed in the UK so far, but there are likely more than a thousand already, according to Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia

Next pandemic could be MORE LETHAL than Covid warns vaccine inventor Dame Sarah Gilbert 

Another pandemic could be more contagious and more lethal than Covid, one of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine inventors has warned.

Dame Sarah Gilbert claimed the advances made in research against fighting deadly viruses ‘must not be lost’.

Delivering the 44th Richard Dimbleby lecture, scheduled to be shown on the BBC on Monday night, she said: ‘This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. 

‘The next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.

‘The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.’ 

Dame Sarah is credited with saving millions of lives through her role in developing the vaccine. 

It comes as Britain’s Omicron wave grew by more than 50 per cent in a day and overall cases rose by 16 per cent in a week to 43,992 on Sunday.

The number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid also rose by 5.8 per cent from 51 last week.  

In further coronavirus developments today: 

  • One of the Covid vaccine inventors warned another pandemic could be ‘more contagious’ and ‘more lethal’.
  • Restrictions which have seen Nigeria added to the UK’s red list today have been branded ‘travel apartheid’.
  • A legal challenge which argues hotel quarantine is a ‘fundamental breach of human rights’ has been mounted.
  • GPs who gave first and second jabs to the housebound are dropping out as they do not have the time or staff.
  • Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for a ‘renewed national effort’ to step up delivery of the booster jab.

Mr Johnson was asked this morning whether the government had acted too late in demanding travellers to the UK take pre-departure tests.

‘No, I think what we’re doing is responding to the pandemic,’ he said.

‘We were the first country in the world to take decisive measures to tackle Omicron. We put about 10 countries automatically, immediately, on to the red list and we said that anybody coming from any country in the world would have to quarantine for a couple of days.

‘We’re now going further and toughening those measures up as we see the spread of Omicron around the world.

‘I don’t think we need to change the overall guidance and advice we’re giving about Omicron in this country. We’re still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is, what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalisations.’   

Emergency regulations last week reintroduced mandatory masks until December 21 to help slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

A final decision on whether to extend their use may not be taken until as late as December 18.

Travel testing rip-off: ‘Cowboy’ firms offer 30p PCR tests then charge TWO HUNDRED times more 

The Covid travel testing rip-off has returned after firms on the Government’s approved list of providers listed cheap PCR tests for pennies – before customers clicked through and found the real price was 200 times higher.

The ‘cowboys’ would list a fake low cost to appear top of search results when sorted by price, but when clicking on the link consumers would find this test was unavailable and the next cheapest one was closer to an average price.

In one case as company was advertising a test for just 30p on the Government website in an apparent attempt to lure in travellers, but this was in fact unavailable on the provider’s website with the next cheapest at £59.

The Department of Health and Social Care has now removed several providers from the website, run by the UK Health Security Agency, after facing criticism for not doing enough to ensure the prices listed remain accurate.

The Government had expressed concerned about the test cowboys last week and today the list had shrunk by nearly 20 firms, with the lowest 30p offers removed. This morning, £15 PCR tests appeared at the bottom of the price list, although customers clicking through to those websites still face paying £80 for the cheapest test.

Francis Ingham, director of the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation, the trade body for Covid testing firms, said: ‘Cutting out the cowboys increases public confidence in testing and help us all get through Covid.’

It comes as families stuck in red list nations trying to get home could have to wait until 2022 – with no availability at London Heathrow quarantine hotels for a group of two adults and two children for the rest of this month.

A family with two adults and one child face waiting at least for a week until next Monday – while single adults or couples will have to wait until this Wednesday, according to availability on the official bookings portal CTM.

Quarantine hotels cost £2,285 for ten days or 11 nights for one adult in one room, then £1,430 for an additional adult or child over 11, and £325 for a child aged 5 to 11. You do not have to pay for children under five.

But Whitehall sources said it was likely masks would stay mandatory for at least another three weeks to give scientists more time to assess the threat posed by Omicron.

Other restrictions, such as travel tests and compulsory ten-day quarantine for those in close contact with an Omicron case, are also set to be extended.

However, Mr Johnson is thought to be keen to resist moving to the Government’s Plan B until at least the New Year. 

That contingency plan would involve the use of vaccine passports and ordering millions to work from home. 

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab yesterday urged people to press ahead with their plans for the festive season, saying it was ‘going to be a great Christmas’. 

A Whitehall source said: ‘In terms of Plan B, we are not there yet. The ambition is that people can have a much more normal Christmas than last year.

‘That depends on what the data shows about the new variant. But certainly the hope is that things stay as they are in the next couple of weeks.’ 

Mr Raab urged people to get their booster jabs, saying it was the most important measure in heading off further restrictions.

But he said ministers did not want to follow Germany in making vaccinations mandatory. 

And he ruled out restricting medical treatment for the unvaccinated, despite warnings from the medical profession that their needs are crowding out other vital care. 

Nicki Credland, chairman of the British Association of Critical Care Nurses, told The Sunday Times: ‘All nurses understand they have to provide non-judgmental care.

‘But what we find difficult is that giving care to patients who have chosen not to be vaccinated has a knock-on effect on other patients.

‘We are still human beings and we still get angry at things that we think aren’t just.’

Her comments came after figures revealed more than 90 per cent of Covid patients needing the most specialist care have not been vaccinated. 

Doctors have warned that some transplant surgery is not going ahead and that vital cancer operations are being delayed.

Mr Raab told Times Radio: ‘I would not countenance some sort of suggestion that we would refuse access to vital services for people who have not had a jab.’

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, said it was ‘entirely possible’ that Omicron could trigger a wave of hospital admissions on par with the peak in January 2021 — even if it is milder than Delta.

He told MailOnline: ‘It’s not uncommon for a more transmissible but less disease-causing pathogen to cause a bigger problem than a virus that is less lethal. If it infects a very large number but only hospitalises a small percentage, we could still end up with an awful lot of people in hospital.’  

Nigeria accuses UK of ‘travel apartheid’ by putting it on the red list of banned countries 

Boris Johnson today warned that it is still not clear how ‘dangerous’ Omicron is as ministers dismissed accusations of ‘travel apartheid’ over the UK’s ban on arrivals from African countries.

The PM defended the government’s response to the emergence of the variant, saying the restrictions on states where it had been detected was ‘decisive’.

And he rejected the idea that the move to impose pre-departure tests on those coming to Britain was ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’.

The comments came after Nigeria’s high commissioner to London backed the UN Secretary General’s view that measures imposed by nations against large parts of Africa amounted to ‘travel apartheid’.

The country was added to the list after the government said 21 cases of Omicron in the UK had been linked to the country.

But in a round of interviews, policing minister Kit Malthouse said that was ‘very unfortunate language’ and the government is only trying to ‘buy time’ to assess the variant.

After US health chiefs have said they are re-evaluating the ban amid initial signs the strain might be less severe than Delta, Mr Malthouse insisted ministers will be ‘informed by what comes out around the world’.

On a trip to Merseyside this morning, Mr Johnson was asked whether the government had acted too late in demanding travellers to the UK take pre-departure tests.

‘No, I think what we’re doing is responding to the pandemic,’ he said.

‘We were the first country in the world to take decisive measures to tackle Omicron. We put about 10 countries automatically, immediately, on to the red list and we said that anybody coming from any country in the world would have to quarantine for a couple of days.

‘We’re now going further and toughening those measures up as we see the spread of Omicron around the world.

Meanwhile, Professor Hunter said he expected Omicron to become the dominant variant ‘probably within the next weeks or a month’ based on how rapidly it is outpacing Delta in the South African epicentre. 

He claimed while that timeline means there is little need for more curbs at Christmas, fresh restrictions could be needed in the New Year.

There has been a meteoric rise in infections in South Africa in the fortnight since it alerted the world to Omicron’s existence on November 24. 

There were 11,125 cases yesterday, marking a fivefold rise in a week. In total, there are 46,000 Covid infections on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests Omicron is already behind around one in 60 of them. 

Doctors in South Africa have insisted that most patients suffer only mild illness, with the US’s top Covid expert Dr Anthony Fauci claiming today it ‘doesn’t look like there’s a great degree of severity to it’. 

But British scientists, including the Government’s own, have warned against the narrative that it is a weaker strain, warning that it could put significant pressure on the NHS by virtue of the fact it can infect more people. 

One mathematical modeller predicted there could be up to 3,000 hospital admissions per day in the UK in January if Omicron takes off domestically — compared to the 4,000 per day at the peak last year. 

Dr Clarke warned that scientists risked ‘whitewashing’ the dangers of Omicron and giving people ‘a false sense of security’ by peddling claims it is just a mild illness. 

He said Britons might not come for their booster or temper their behaviour if they are told the strain is only mild, a claim which he questions.

Admissions in South Africa’s Gauteng province — ground zero of the fresh outbreak — have risen 230 per cent in the fortnight since its discovery, with 2,100 patients admitted last week, raising more doubts about the claim it’s milder. 

But one study in Tshwane, in Gauteng, suggests that only a quarter of those admissions are primarily for Covid, with the rest known as ‘incidental cases’ in which the patient came to hospital for a different illness. 

Only around a quarter of South Africans are vaccinated so it’s unclear how this will translate in the UK, where more than 70 per cent are fully immunised. 

Scientists won’t know the full scale of Omicron’s infectiousness, vaccine evasiveness or lethality for another two weeks, when they can isolate the virus in a lab, study its biology and test it against vaccines. 

UK Government scientists’ best estimate is that current vaccines will be made 40 per cent less effective against infection from the new strain, but they still expect the jabs to hold up against severe illness and death. 

James Ward, a mathematical modeller from Surrey, said there could be up to 20,000 Omicron hospital admissions in a single week in January, based on assumptions about how fast it’s spreading in South African and presuming it’s more mild than Delta. 

Professor Hunter, from the school of medicine at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Breakfast: ‘How it’s likely to spread in the UK still uncertain, but I think the early signs are that it will probably spread quite quickly and probably start outcompeting Delta and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least.

‘The big remaining question is actually how harmful it is if you do get Covid with this Omicron variant, and that’s the question that we’re struggling to answer at the moment.’

He said travel restrictions would have a minor impact, adding that ‘one of the problems with travel restrictions like this is that it then de-motivates other countries to actually be open about their own situations for fear of what they would see as economic sanctions. So I think once the infection is spreading within a country, then border restrictions don’t really add anything.

‘We’ve known that long before Covid. This has been knowledge that we’ve had for decades, if not centuries, to be honest.’


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