Coronavirus latest as officials reportedly consider two-week lockdown; Boris Johnson presented with Plan C options; SAGE warns tougher COVID restrictions must be brought in “very soon”; weekend football fixtures postponed.
By Thomas Moore, science correspondent
It’s hard to see how Plan B is going to rein in Omicron.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) estimates every infected person is passing the virus on to between three and five others. And in some parts of the country cases are doubling twice in just three days.
A return to working from home and wearing masks will prevent some opportunities for the virus to spread. But that’s highly unlikely to be enough.
In Scotland, businesses are already having to take extra measures and the public is being told to limit gatherings to three households at a time.
And in Wales nightclubs will close after Christmas, and social distancing and outdoor mixing are being strongly encouraged.
By contrast, in England the government has preferred a lighter touch.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told MPs on the Health Select Committee this week that tighter controls could only be justified when there was evidence on the severity of Omicron disease.
That may come after Christmas, when the UKHSA predicts 250 cases will be in hospital – enough for a meaningful statistical comparison with the Delta variant.
But even if the risk of serious disease is lower than in previous waves, hospitals could still be overwhelmed because of the high rate of infections.
In which case, what might Plan C entail?
Reversing back along the roadmap that took us out of lockdown in the spring looks likely.
Perhaps to Step 3, in May 2021, with a limit of six people meeting indoors, and the hospitality industry restricted to table service inside.
Or could the restrictions go further, back to Step 2, as it was in April? That would mean non-essential retail could stay open, but pubs and restaurants could only serve at tables outside and indoor mixing with other households would be banned.
It’s still possible that the peak in daily hospitalisations will be lower than the January record of 4,583.
The evidence from South Africa suggests that patients who are admitted with Omicron are less likely to need oxygen and they stay in hospital for half as long as in the Delta wave.
But admissions are already rising in London, which has the highest rates of Omicron in the country.
And scientists who model epidemics warn a precautionary approach would be smart. Otherwise, there is a danger that the fate of hospitals is sealed before there is time to act.
Hannah Brady, a member of COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, has hit out at Boris Johnson after a picture emerged of him appearing to wear a mask under his chin on a train.
“Dad caught Covid on public transport on his way to work before masks were mandated. He died without saying goodbye to me,” she wrote.
It’s unclear when the photograph was taken and some people have suggested the prime minister may have been eating at the time as a Greggs bag can be seen in the image.
Business owners fear the threat of new restrictions and dire warnings from scientists could see them go bust if no more support is given.
Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce, told BBC Breakfast: “What we need to hear pretty much now, over the weekend, which should have been one of the busiest weekends of the year for businesses, is what are they going to do. Doing nothing is not an option right now … or we will see businesses fail.
“The Treasury have been phenomenal in terms of supporting businesses – the furlough scheme, the grants, the loan schemes – all of these things have kept these businesses going right to this point from when things started in March 2020, but they’re now in a position where they’ve used up cash reserves, their costs are going up quite dramatically because of the massive surge in inflation and suddenly at the time that should have been the time which would help them through into next year, their customers have just disappeared.
“So, we will see business failures if there isn’t any support coming in now.”
An expert has warned people should take staying away from crowded places and social distancing “incredibly seriously right now”.
Professor Beata Kampmann, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Sky News that boosters are very effective at preventing symptomatic infection but they won’t start working straight away.
“I think it’s really important to realise the booster doesn’t kick in the moment you leave the vaccine centre,” she said.
“It takes between 10 days and maybe up to two weeks to get the antibody levels back up to the level where we think they might be really protective.
“Don’t go to the pub after you’ve had the booster – that would be entirely wrong to do.”
She continued: “I think people need to take social distancing and wearing masks and staying away from crowded places incredibly seriously right now if they don’t want to jeopardise their Christmas and equally, even more importantly, what’s going to happen to the NHS.”
Professor Kampmann added that hospitals are already at 94% capacity, even without accounting for an expected rise in admissions over the next few weeks.
“I think we’d better put the brakes on now rather than it catching up with us,” she said.
Asked whether a lockdown should be implemented after Christmas, she replied: “The events will to some degree to some extent but what I’m worried about is the events will have overtaken us by the time this policy kicks in.”
A government scientist has warned the current measures alone will not be enough to stop spiralling numbers of Omicron cases.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the SAGE subcommittee advising on behavioural science, recommended a circuit breaker lockdown before Christmas.
Speaking to Times Radio in a personal capacity, he said: “The only way really, or at least the most effective way, we can have an immediate effect is to decrease the number of contacts we have.
“In many ways, the most effective way of diminishing contact is to have a circuit-breaker.
“Now, you could have it after Christmas, the problem is after Christmas it’s probably too late, it’s probably by then we will have had a huge surge of infections with all the impact upon society.”
He added that while no-one wants everything to close down, things are already having to shut down because of the spread of infection.
However, there isn’t a cabinet discussion or meeting today, according to our political correspondent Rob Powell.
He says this means the idea of imminent restrictions is “being played down somewhat”, but officials are “concerned about the data”.
One source said that not enough was known about the impact of Plan B and the booster programme but “in any case, if things do become that bad, a circuit breaker wouldn’t be the kind of thing we look at”.
One in three Londoners have still not had a first vaccine – but Sadiq Khan has said efforts are still being made to reach the unvaccinated.
“In some pockets of London, there are black Londoners, there are Muslim Londoners, there are Jewish Londoners, there are Eastern European Londoners, who still haven’t had the vaccine,” he told broadcasters.
Representatives are still “reaching out to those communities” to “make sure no-one is left behind”, he said.
Encouragingly, Mr Khan said “thousands and thousands” of first doses have been given out in the last couple of days.
The capital recorded roughly 27,000 new COVID cases in the last 24 hours, the London mayor has told broadcasters.
Over the last week, more than 70,000 infections were reported.
“I’m incredibly worried,” Mr Khan said.
“If we were speaking a few weeks ago, London had the fewest cases in the country. Now we’re the region with the largest number of cases.”
He also warned hospital admissions are going up in the capital.
Reports this morning have suggested Boris Johnson is currently considering a range of measures to tackle the COVID crisis – including a two-week circuit breaker lockdown after Christmas.
Lord Victor Adebowale, chairman of the NHS Confederation, has said he and his members would support a circuit breaker to protect the NHS.
Asked about the reports on Times Radio, he said: “I would support the circuit-breaker. My members would support the circuit-breaker.
“We’ve been calling for Plan B for some time now and we’re glad that it was voted through. I think the government has to be prepared to recall parliament if further interventions are needed.”
He also described leaked modelling by SAGE as “very worrying” and said a cautionary approach should be taken.
A big national push for boosters is taking place this weekend – and even Royal Mail is getting involved.