Tory MPs have blasted the Government after it emerged new rules on self-isolation will be enshrined in law until March, sparking fears the curbs could remain in place far beyond a promised three week review.
A new restriction came into force yesterday which will require people who have been in contact with a case of the Omicron coronavirus variant to self-isolate for 10 days or risk a fine of up to £10,000.
Boris Johnson has said that rule, along with requirements to wear face masks in shops and on public transport and for returning travellers to take a PCR test on or before day two after arrival, will be reviewed before Christmas.
But the regulations underpinning the self-isolation rule are not due to expire until March 24, prompting a backlash from anti-lockdown Tories.
Conservative MPs have expressed concerns that the new rule could cause a fresh ‘pingdemic’ which could devastate the economy and education system.
But Health Secretary Sajid Javid today dismissed those concerns as he said the current number of Omicron cases is still ‘very low’ with 22 confirmed cases across the UK.
Mr Javid also joined Boris Johnson in telling people they do not need to cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief Dr Jenny Harries sparked Tory fury yesterday after she said people should limit socialising to slow the spread of the variant.
Mr Johnson rejected that advice as he said the Government had already put in place a package of ‘balanced and proportionate measures’ in response to the threat posed by Omicron.
Mr Javid echoed that position this morning as he said people ‘should continue to behave in the way that they were planning to behave over Christmas’ and ‘I don’t think there is any need to change those plans’.
However, the Health Secretary risked plunging the new rules into further chaos after he said he would take a Covid test before attending a Christmas party.
He said that testing before a party is ‘not a formal recommendation in the guidance’ but he would take a test if he was attending such an event as a ‘sensible precaution’.
Sir Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson clashed over Covid rules at PMQs this lunchtime as the PM faced a revolt from Tory MPs
New self-isolation rules requiring close contacts of cases of the Omicron variant to stay at home for 10 days will be enshrined in law until March
The Government has insisted the rules will be reviewed in three weeks’ time but Tory MPs, including former chief whip Mark Harper, have expressed concerns about the expiry date
Israeli scientists claim Pfizer’s booster jab provides up to 90% protection against severe illness from Omicron
People who get a booster Pfizer Covid vaccine or who had their second jab within six months should be highly protected against Omicron, Israeli health chiefs claim.
Without citing any data, Health minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Tuesday that there was ‘room for optimism’ based on ‘initial indications’.
Just hours later, a report by an Israeli news channel claimed the Pfizer jab was 90 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infection from Omicron, just slightly less than Delta.
Channel 12 also claimed the super mutant is just 1.3 times more infectious than the dominant Delta variant — much lower than initially feared.
The news comes after two new cases of Omicron variant were identified in Israel, bringing the total to four. The country closed its borders to foreigners at midnight on Sunday to stem the spread of the new strain.
Mr Horowitz told local reporters on Tuesday: ‘In the coming days we will have more accurate information about the efficacy of the vaccine against Omicron.
‘But there is already room for optimism, and there are initial indications that those who are vaccinated with a vaccine still valid or with a booster, will also be protected from this variant.’
A spokesperson for the Health Ministry last night said it was not yet in possession of the data published by Channel 12.
But the comments come after the co-founder of BioNTech – which developed the Pfizer jab – said he was confident it would hold up against Omicron.
The latest coronavirus developments came as:
- Mr Javid denied reports that Mr Johnson and his Downing Street staff broke Covid rules by attending two parties in Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas.
- The Health Secretary admitted it will be a ‘huge ask’ to deliver on the Government’s booster drive pledge of offering a jab to every UK adult by the end of January.
- Labour urged the Government to introduce pre-departure testing for all people before they fly to the UK.
- Professor Andrew Hayward, from University College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said there was a need to keep an eye on Omicron growth as ‘small numbers can turn to big numbers quite quickly’.
- Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said some NHS organisations had asked staff ‘not to mix in big groups’ in the run-up to Christmas.
- Data published by the Office for National Statistics showed a total of 170,816 deaths have occurred in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.
MPs voted yesterday to overwhelmingly support Mr Johnson’s new rule on self-isolation by 431 votes to 36, as 32 Tories rebelled to vote against.
Tory backbenchers are worried that while the Government has said the restrictions will be reviewed in three weeks, ministers could subsequently act to keep them in place.
The rule on compulsory face masks will expire on December 20 but the rule on self-isolation will technically be enshrined in law until March 24.
Former chief whip Mark Harper raised the expiry date issue with Vaccine Minister Maggie Throup yesterday as he said: ‘The Government have said that they are going to review these measures after three weeks and she is right—on the face masks, the regulations expire on 20 December—but the self-isolation SI (statutory instrument) has no expiry date, which means it will run all the way until the main statutory instrument expires on 24 March 2022. Why is that?’
Ms Throup said Mr Harper had made a ‘very good point’ but insisted ‘we will not continue to have these regulations in place for any longer than is necessary’.
Mr Harper said: ‘While ministers have been clear that the regulations will be reviewed in three weeks… the regulations are not time limited; they amend another set of regulations that do not have an expiry date until March next year.
‘Although the minister tells me that they will not be enforced for a day longer than necessary, she must recognise that, given the events of the past few weeks and how ministers handled, among other things, the standards measures, there has been a diminution in trust between backbenchers and ministers.’
Government sources told Politico that the March date is the result of a technical issue relating to how the change was made in legislation and have stressed the important moment is the three-week review.
The new rule on self-isolation has prompted fears among Tory MPs of a potential return to the ‘pingdemic’ which wreaked havoc across the country earlier this year as thousands of people were told to stay at home.
GPs’ workload will be ‘suspended’ to focus on ‘new national mission’ booster drive with face-to-face appointments set to take hit again
Sajid Javid today admitted GPs’ workload will be shifted to focus on the booster campaign in a dramatic U-turn — as fears grow that face-to-face appointments with doctors will once again take the hit.
The Health Secretary said getting third doses into people’s arms to protect against the Omicron variant had become the ‘new national mission’, after months of strong-arming GPs into seeing more non-Covid patients in-person.
No10 last night set the target of offering more than 50million booster jabs to every adult by the end of January, which will involve massively ramping up the current drive which is barely reaching 2.5m per week.
GPs will once again be a key anchor of the vaccination programme and will be incentivised with doctors getting £15 for every jab delivered with a £5 bonus per shot delivered on Sundays and a £30 premium for jabs delivered to vulnerable people in their homes.
Asked if he would lighten the load for doctors who have complained about excess work, Mr Javid told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Yes – this is our new national mission in terms of the public health of this country there is nothing more important.
‘We are working at pace with GP representatives in the last two days, in how we can free up some of their time. I won’t set that out now myself, it will be set out by NHS directly.’
There are fears on what impact re-prioritisation will have on face-to-face appointments with GPs which only last month crept up to 64 per cent last month, but are massively below pre-pandemic levels.
A report by the National Audit Office last night warned that there were up to 740,000 ‘missing’ urgent GP referrals for suspected cancers during the pandemic.
Tory MP Steve Brine said: ‘We are not just looking at a pingdemic in our economy and in our businesses; we are looking at a pingdemic that will devastate education again.
‘After everything that we have learned—everything that I have felt in my own family—are we really, seriously, going to do that to our children again?’
Fellow Tory MP Craig Mackinlay said: ‘I am afraid that the proposals mean we are going to fall into a new pingdemic.’
But Mr Javid today said he is not worried about a potential ‘pingdemic’ because the number of Omicron cases is still ‘very low’.
He told Sky News: ‘No, no I am not. At this point in time the case numbers are very low. I think throughout the UK we have got 22 confirmed cases at the moment.
‘Now, that will go up, it will certainly go up, but the numbers are low, I hope it sort of stays that way.
‘So, I am not worried about a pingdemic type situation but we have always also said that even before we knew about the variant in our Plan A we have always been clear that as you get into deeper winter, the colder, darker days, the virus likes that, not just this virus, the flu virus, they like that.
‘So as we do that then people should just be careful to try and think can they ventilate a room and just follow the current guidance.’
Dr Harries sparked a Tory backlash and warnings from the hospitality industry yesterday after she said decreasing social contact ‘a little bit’ could help slow the spread of the new variant.
She said that ‘if we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay’.
Downing Street subsequently slapped down the advice as it stressed a reduction in socialising is not part of the Government’s response to Omicron.
Mr Johnson later echoed a similar sentiment at a Number 10 press conference as he said Christmas parties should still go ahead.
Mr Javid was asked for his opinion on the issue this morning as he told Sky News: ‘I think people should continue to behave in the way that they were planning to behave over Christmas.
‘I don’t think there is any need to change those plans. The only changes that have been made in the last few days are the ones that everyone now knows about.
‘It might effect your international travel plans, so if someone had plans to travel over Christmas then there could be an impact there.
‘There is the need to self-isolate if you come into contact with someone with Omicron.’
The Health Secretary was also asked if people should take a coronavirus test before attending a Christmas party.
Sajid Javid says he would take a lateral flow and wear a face covering at a Christmas party
The Health Secretary today raised the prospect of another lockdown at Christmas, as he urged people to take Covid tests before going to festive parties and wear facemasks at large gatherings amid mounting fears about the so-called ‘Omicron’ variant.
In a round of interviews this morning, Sajid Javid insisted another festive shutdown was ‘not the plan’ but warned: ‘We can’t rule out any particular measure at this point in time because we always have to look at the data and do what we need to protect people.’
He told Sky News’s Kay Burley that revellers ought to take precautions before going to Christmas parties such as tests and face coverings to protect against the new strain.
But Mr Javid rubbished fears of another ‘pingdemic’ devastating the economy and education system. Under the new rules, large numbers of healthy people could be told to self-isolate for 10 days after coming into contact with someone infected with the variant.
He replied: ‘I would. I would. It is not a formal recommendation in the guidance but if I was going to a party with lots of party and things I would.
‘But I would have done that by the way even before we knew about this variant.
‘Again, the reason I would have done that is because it is getting cold, it is getting darker, we are spending more time indoors, probably more people indoors than before just because of the colder, darker days, so a sensible precaution that everyone can take.’
Mr Javid told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that people should be ‘sensible’ of they attend a Christmas party.
He said: ‘If you are invited to a Christmas party, there’s quite a few people there, maybe you want to take an LFT (lateral flow test) test before you go. Go to the party, but just be cautious.’
Asked if he would wear a mask if he was at a party, Mr Javid said: ‘It depends if I am walking around or sitting down. It depends if I’m eating. People just need to make a decision based on the guidance.’
The Cabinet minister defended the Government’s decision to make face coverings compulsory on public transport and in shops in England but not in hospitality settings.
‘The job of government is to listen to expert advice and then make a balanced and proportionate judgment. That’s what we’ve done,’ he said.
‘We’ve acted swiftly. But I think what we’ve said on face coverings and the other measures that we have taken is a balanced and proportionate approach.’
The Government has said the new rules on self-isolation, face masks and travel testing which came into effect from 4am yesterday will buy scientists some time to analyse the Omicron variant and to determine if vaccines are effective against it.
Omicron Covid appeared in Nigeria in OCTOBER – weeks before South Africa announced discovery of variant, new tests reveal
Three Omicron cases were detected in travellers who arrived in Nigeria from South Africa within the past week, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control said today.
But Dr Ifedayo Adetifa, the agency’s director, added that retroactive testing of Covid samples collected in recent weeks had identified another case of Omicron dating back to October.
It means that Omicron – designated a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO and believed to be the most-infectious form of Covid yet found – was likely circulating undetected for weeks before first being identified.
The discovery comes just a day after after Dutch health authorities said they also found a case of Omicron in a sample collected on November 19, four days before South Africa sounded the alarm.