Coronavirus latest as the World Health Organisation says “an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled”; the Treasury is set to “say more” over financial assistance for struggling businesses; former SAGE scientist warns Omicron is spreading “incredibly fast”.
Officials in Germany have approved giving booster jabs three months after a second dose – halving the previous advice.
The STIKO vaccine authority said the updated advice is reflective of the increasing presence of the Omicron variant, which appears to be more transmissible.
Anyone over the age of 12 in Germany that received their second dose more than three months ago is now eligible for their booster jab.
Shadow Treasury minister Pat McFadden said of the Government’s new COVID support for businesses: “This is a holding package from a Government caught in a holding position.
“The prime minister is a prisoner of divisions inside his party and within the Cabinet about whether any further measures are needed and whether they will get past Tory backbenchers. That is not the way that crucial public health decisions should be taken.
“Labour has been calling for an economic support plan for businesses affected by a wave of pre-Christmas cancellations. Support is welcome to see but we will be going through the details of this announcement to see which business and workers are included and excluded.
“Business support should have been announced when the Plan B changes were voted on last week but it has only happened after the Chancellor was dragged back from California to focus on the plight facing businesses and workers here in the UK.
“The real question after yesterday’s indecisive Cabinet meeting is what will happen next, when will the country be informed of that, and will support for businesses and workers be placed alongside any further public health measures that might be announced.”
Responding to the Treasury announcement, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chairman Mike Cherry said: “These positive measures will help alleviate the intense pressures that small firms are currently under, and hopefully arrest a significant decline in confidence over this year.
“With the prospect of one million people sick or self-isolating by January, we encouraged the chancellor to bring back the COVID statutory sick pay rebate – we’re pleased to see our recommendation taken forward today.
“This move will reduce stress for small employers up and down the country, helping those who are struggling most with depleted cashflow. It’s vital that small firms – once again up against a massively disrupted festive season – can reclaim the costs of supporting staff. “
He continues: “We’ve always said that support needs to move in lockstep with restrictions, and this intervention will help give small businesses confidence that this is the approach the government will be taking.”
Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality CEO, said in response to the chancellor’s latest round of support : “This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated.
“It will help to secure jobs and business viability in the short term, particularly among small businesses in the sector, and we particularly welcome the boost to funds for the supply chain and event and business catering companies so badly affected by the reintroduction of work from home guidelines.
“It is a generous top up emergency fund in addition to previous support and with a commitment from ministers to prioritise hospitality and its supply chain in allocation of funds.
“There is now a real urgency in getting this funding to businesses so we urge local authorities to prioritise distribution of funds to make sure jobs and businesses are preserved through this difficult period.”
After promising more information on business support amid the spread of Omicron, the Treasury has announced that £1 billion in help will be made available.
It includes support for Statutory Sick Pay and a £30 million boost to the Culture Recovery Fund.
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak said: “We recognise that the spread of the Omicron variant means businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors are facing huge uncertainty, at a crucial time.
“So we’re stepping in with £1 billion of support, including a new grant scheme, the reintroduction of the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme and further funding released through the Culture Recovery Fund.
“Ultimately the best thing we can do to support businesses is to get the virus under control, so I urge everyone to Get Boosted Now.”
By Tamara Cohen, political correspondent
Boris Johnson looked pained as he said the government would not hesitate to act in bringing in new Covid restrictions if necessary, and then hesitated to.
Currently England is subject to Plan B – face masks indoors, and guidance to work from home. Further restrictions, which the prime minister has said would be put to a vote in Parliament, now look unlikely until after Christmas but increasingly certain afterwards.
Number 10 officials point out that the prime minister did not rule out more curbs this week – as happened at the last minute last year. Cue more agony for the hospitality and cultural sectors which will stay open with low footfall; and an anxious wait for families.
The devolved governments are already inching further – the Welsh government has banned spectators from Boxing Day sports events, while Scotland has advised people to form a three-household bubble for Christmas Day.
Is Boris Johnson genuinely unsure about whether to go further or the victim of his cabinet and mutinous backbenchers urging him not to?
I understand the PM did not present a specific proposal to his cabinet yesterday. Some ministers backed restrictions now, but more notably, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, as well as the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, were vocal in urging him to wait until the hospitalisation trends are clearer, in order to protect businesses.
That may be too late. Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, the top scientific advisers, are now advising stricter measures by the end of the year to prevent a spike in hospitalisations in January which could – according to some models – outpace the one at the start of this year despite the booster rollout.
It is the hardest of decisions, with the many uncertainties made harder by the impression that political considerations may be determining the timetable.
We reported earlier that the Scottish cabinet is mulling over its options for restrictions and events over the New Year period.
That update will be made by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at 2.20pm – which we will bring you live on Sky News.
Currently, those in Scotland have been asked to limit their contacts around Christmas to two other households.
People in Scotland are also required to prove they have been vaccinated or to show a negative coronavirus test upon entry to nightclubs and other venues and indoor hospitality venues have been instructed to collect customer details.
You can get more information on the current rules below.
The US has announced what is thought to be the first death of somebody infected by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Government officials say an unvaccinated man in his 50s from Texas has passed away.
The revelation comes ahead of a major Joe Biden speech later, where he will make rapid tests available to Americans for free and encourage them to get vaccinated.
Growth in British retail slowed in the first half of the month as Omicron kept shoppers at home, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has reported.
The CBI says that sales went from a value of +39 last month to +8 this month, with the trend expected to continue in to January.
It’s the lowest value since non-essential shops were closed in March.
Ben Jones, CBI lead economist, said: “Our December survey confirms what we’ve been hearing anecdotally about Omicron’s chilling impact on activity on the High Street, with retail sales growth slowing and expectations for the coming month sharply downgraded.
“On the supply side, retailers have been making progress in building up stocks, which were seen as more than adequate to deal with expected demand over Christmas. The concern now is the potential for rapidly rising sickness and staff absences to cause renewed disruption to supply chains in the New Year.
“It’s crucial that the government takes steps to help society live confidently with the virus, including meaningful dialogue between business, government and unions to assess the impact of restrictions and the need for future support.”