Omicron runs rampant as London declares 'major incident'

Boris Johnson under fire from all corners after weeks of political turmoil

The rapid spread of the coronavirus is impacting people's Christmas plans for a second year running. AP
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a political tug-of-war over potential new restrictions on Saturday as the rampant spread of the Omicron variant added to his political woes.

As London declared a "major incident" due to the spread of Omicron and at least seven people were confirmed to have died from the variant, the government released scientific papers suggesting hundreds of thousands of people are catching the strain every day.

Ministers were urged to consider tougher restrictions amid days of record-shattering infection numbers that put many people's Christmas plans in peril. Although millions of people have received booster vaccines, even a small proportion of severe cases could put health services under pressure.

There were 90,418 confirmed coronavirus cases on Saturday, short of Friday's peak but a stark jump from 54,073 a week earlier. There were 125 deaths, a slight decrease.

While Mr Johnson's government prepared for emergency talks with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a series of leaks suggested the prime minister was presented with a set of “Plan C” contingency options such as a two-week ban on indoor socialising after Christmas.

But Mr Johnson is working from an increasingly perilous political position after weeks of scandals and divisions culminated in a humbling defeat for his Conservative Party at a parliamentary by-election.

Any formal restrictions would risk further undermining Mr Johnson’s authority among his own MPs, after almost 100 of them rebelled against the wider use of digital health certificates under the current Plan B measures.

“We need data on severity, hospitalisation rate and length of stay – not expected until after Christmas. No knee-jerk reactions, ministers,” said Conservative MP Mark Harper, a prominent sceptic of restrictions.

Mr Johnson is under further pressure over a string of allegations that government staff held Christmas parties last winter, at a time when social gatherings were largely banned.

The scandal took another twist on Friday when Simon Case, the civil servant investigating the claims, was forced to recuse himself after allegations that a Christmas event took place in his own office.

“It’s incredibly disappointing because we all know what was happening when these parties were going on. People couldn’t see their loved ones who were dying and were making incredible sacrifices,” said Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party.

“Boris Johnson has set a tone for this government and has allowed this to happen under his watch,” she told Sky News.

Mr Johnson sought to offer a ray of hope by announcing that a record 936,000 people had been vaccinated in 24 hours, meaning half of UK adults have received a booster shot.

But there are fears soaring infection numbers could put the National Health Service under severe strain, even if most cases are mild.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan brought back the "major incident" designation for the first time since February, with Omicron believed to be dominant in the capital and hospital admissions on the rise.

"The Omicron variant has quickly become dominant with cases increasing rapidly and the number of patients in our hospitals with Covid-19 on the rise again," he said.

The government's scientific advisers fear hospital admissions could rise to more than 3,000 a day, close to the levels seen last winter, according to the minutes of a meeting on Thursday.

They said new restrictions could not wait until the New Year if ministers wanted to be sure of easing pressure on hospitals.

“If the aim is to reduce the levels of infection in the population and prevent hospitalisations reaching these levels, more stringent measures would need to be implemented very soon," they said.

“Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.”

In England, it is "almost certain that there are now hundreds of thousands of new Omicron infections per day," they said.

The chairman of the NHS Confederation, Lord Victor Adebowale, expressed support for so-called circuit-breaker restrictions.

“I would support the circuit-breaker. My members would support the circuit-breaker,” he told Times Radio. “I think the government has to be prepared to recall Parliament if further interventions are needed.”

While advisers have signalled that people should limit their social contacts, Mr Johnson has stopped short of ordering formal restrictions.

The Plan B measures, which came into force this week, provide for the greater use of face masks and health certificates in England.

The Financial Times reported that Mr Johnson was presented with a range of Plan C options ranging from “mild guidance to nudge people, right through to lockdown”.

It quoted allies of Mr Johnson who said he preferred the guidance route, but had to be realistic about the threat of Omicron.

A separate report in The Times said draft regulations were being prepared that would ban people from meeting indoors and limit restaurants to outdoor service for two weeks after Christmas.

A government spokesman said ministers would "continue to look closely at all the emerging data [and] keep our measures under review".

The leaders of the devolved administrations called for more support for businesses losing customers to the informal lockdown.

“We must advise people to cut social contacts to a minimum… but then compensate businesses for the impact of fewer customers and support venues to cancel events if necessary,” said Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Updated: December 19, 2021, 7:15 AM