England rules out new Covid restrictions before New Year

Ministers make their decision after UK announces 98,515 new infections on Monday

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England will not face new coronavirus restrictions before the New Year, the UK's Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced on Monday.

The government delivered its verdict after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was briefed on the latest figures, which showed an uncertain picture as the Christmas weekend led to incomplete data on the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

The UK reported 98,515 new cases on Monday as part of a three-day batch of figures. It was not enough to persuade ministers to impose restrictions which are fiercely opposed by many of their own Conservative MPs.

Mr Javid said people should take lateral flow tests and celebrate the New Year outside where possible, but said there would be no new measures before December 31 — making England an outlier after the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland brought in restrictions on Boxing Day.

“When we get into the New Year, of course we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures — but nothing more until then at least,” Mr Javid said.

He said vaccines were the best defence against the variant, with disproportionate numbers of unprotected people being admitted to hospital with Covid-19. The large infection numbers and staff sickness in the National Health Service have led to fears of medical facilities being overwhelmed.

In the first data release since Christmas Eve, Britain announced more than 300,000 new cases over three days, with 113,628 reported on Christmas Day and 108,893 on Boxing Day.

While the raw numbers would imply a slowdown in infection growth since last week, the government cautioned that the figures were incomplete over the Christmas weekend. There were 146 new deaths announced over three days.

Although England will not impose New Year restrictions, many people had their travel plans thrown into chaos as the Omicron variant causes fresh havoc for the air industry.

The travel problems continued into Monday as dozens of transatlantic flights were cancelled amid staff shortages linked to the pandemic. It followed a Christmas weekend plagued by logistical issues, with multiple airlines describing shortages of staff due to sickness and isolation.

Monday’s cancelled flights included trips to North America from London, Amsterdam and Berlin, with almost 2,000 journeys scrapped in all, tracking website FlightAware showed.

Lufthansa, Delta, United Airlines, British Airways, Alaska Airlines are among the airlines that have been forced to cancel flights. US travel stocks retreated on Monday, with Delta and American Airlines showing some of the biggest declines.

The airline JetBlue said it entered the holiday season with “the highest staffing levels we've had since the pandemic began".

But “despite our best efforts, we've had to cancel a number of flights, and additional flight cancellations and other delays remain a possibility as we see more Omicron community spread”, it said.

The spread of the Omicron variant has dealt a setback to the resumption of international travel after two bruising years of restrictions. London’s busy Heathrow Airport is advising passengers to arrive three hours early even for short-haul flights because of the extra checks needed.

Many governments in Europe have also brought back domestic curbs, such as limits on social gatherings and reduced opening times for restaurants, while they race to hand out booster vaccines against Covid-19.

Although there are early signs that Omicron causes less severe illness than the previously dominant Delta variant, the picture was thrown into uncertainty by limited testing over the Christmas period.

Debate over new measures

Some German states introduced tougher measures from Monday, including limits of 10 people meeting indoors and 50 outdoors. The Netherlands is spending the holiday season under a strict lockdown.

French ministers are looking at tightening restrictions to slow the spread of the variant. One idea being considered is closing the current get-out clauses in France's health pass so that only fully vaccinated people have access to restaurants, cinemas and cultural venues.

And while the British government has said it would not enact New Year's restrictions, measures announced by the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland took effect on Sunday, limiting crowds at traditional Boxing Day sports fixtures.

One MP, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, said it was too early to judge the impact of higher cases on hospital admissions. He said the other UK nations were “doing more damage to people’s liberties than they need to” by moving to limit social contacts.

“At the moment, I would urge caution because of the damage to the economy and the damage to individuals by locking them down unnecessarily,” he told Times Radio.

On the other side of the debate, the government’s scientific advisers said that the NHS could be overwhelmed by rising admissions.

Alison Leary, chairwoman of healthcare and workforce modelling at London Southbank University, said as much as 40 per cent of the capital's NHS workforce could be off work under her “worst-case scenario” workings.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's World At One programme, she said: “The NHS is in a fairly fragile state in terms of workforce anyway — that's fairly well documented — and the increased absence rate due to Covid and Omicron in particular are putting a lot more strain on the system.”

Updated: December 27, 2021, 5:38 PM