What restrictions will Britain face over the Christmas holidays? Omicron confusion reigns

The prime minister hinted at further curbs but refused to give a possible timetable

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Millions of Britons are heading into the festive season knowing new Covid restrictions are just around the corner.

In Scotland, Hogmanay New Year parties are cancelled, while UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people in England there would be no new rules before Christmas. There are also new rules for Wales and Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson’s statement immediately put the spotlight on December 27, the first day after the official Christmas holidays and the date Scotland’s restrictions kick in.

Last year, millions of people across the country called off Christmas gatherings after ministers did a last-minute about-turn banning household mixing only days before the holiday began.

This year, there were also new rules dropping only a week before Christmas.

What has happened for England?

Mr Johnson admitted continuing questions over the severity of the Omicron mutation meant he had not ordered new restrictions.

“We don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify tougher measures before Christmas,” he said.

That means England stays in the Plan B restrictions brought in to tackle the Omicron outbreak, but does not go into stricter rules or a lockdown.

Under the Plan B restrictions, England has the most relaxed rules of the four states.

Face coverings are compulsory in most indoor public settings and on public transport, and people have been told to work from home if they can.

A booster drive has been expanded to include all people aged 18 and up.

Anyone who cannot work from home should continue to go in to work but is encouraged to consider taking lateral flow tests regularly.

A booster drive has been expanded to include all people aged 18 and over.

Covid passes are required for entry into nightclubs and other venues as of December 15.

This applies to indoor events with 500 or more attending, where people are likely to stand or move around, such as music venues.

It also includes outdoor events with 4,000 or more, such as music festivals, and any events with 10,000 or more attending, whether indoors or outdoors, such as sports stadiums.

Queen Elizabeth II cancelled her annual trip to her Sandringham estate in Norfolk. Instead the monarch will celebrate the season at Windsor Castle in Berkshire.

What are the Covid restrictions in Scotland?

Scotland has severely curtailed festivities but they do not come into force until December 26, six days before the New Year, which is a highlight of the nation’s celebrations.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed limits on spectator numbers allowed at sporting events.

Rules that will be in place for three weeks mean a maximum of 500 people can attend outdoor events where physical distancing of one metre is in place.

Indoor standing events will be limited to 100 spectators, and indoor seated events to 200. That also cancels large-scale traditional Scottish Hogmanay celebrations on December 31.

Restaurants and bars will be reduced to table service only. Everyone 12 and over must wear face coverings indoors.

Care home visits have been limited to two households, while all over-18s can book a booster shot appointment online.

Working from home will again become a legal duty on employers.

And in Wales?

The Welsh government has announced new Covid-19 rules to start on December 26.

It includes two-metre social distancing in workplaces and on all premises that are open to the public.

The rule of six apples to gatherings in regulated premises, such as hospitality, cinemas and theatres.

Table service in licensed premises and face coverings in hospitality settings become compulsory at all times apart from when seated; and a maximum number of 30 people at an indoor event and 50 outdoors.

There is an exception for team sports, for which up to 50 spectators will be able to gather in addition to those taking part.

A £3 million ($3.9m) Spectator Sports Fund will be available to support clubs and sporting venues affected by the new measures.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford previously announced a mixture of advice for the Christmas period alongside new regulations to follow as part of a “two-phase plan” which includes the closure of nightclubs from December 27.

The Welsh government has announced a £60m fund to support any businesses affected by the restrictions.

And Northern Ireland?

In Northern Ireland, the Executive Office brought in new restrictions after “scenario planning” ways to slow the spread of the virus.

From December 26, nightclubs will have to close at 6am. All indoor standing events will be banned and dancing, except at weddings, is also forbidden.

Sporting events can continue with no limits on capacity, but this will be reviewed on December 30.

From December 27, restaurants and other hospitality venues can have a maximum of six at a table and table service will be mandatory.

People socialising indoors are advised not mix with members of more than two other households.

For now, sporting events can continue with no limits on capacities, but a review will take place for December 30.

Who is opposed to new restrictions?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is understood to be resisting plans for more curbs because of the economic cost involved.

The prime minister also expressed his distaste for more rules, according to a Cabinet source who spoke to The Telegraph.

The insider said Mr Johnson “did not need much convincing” to hold back from more restrictions, saying: “It was ‘let’s look at the data, let’s analyse everything and if something has changed, we will take action’.”

“He [Mr Johnson] was generally open minded but requires the evidence to prove that we should do something before we do it.”

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the House of Commons leader, and Stephen Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, also reportedly spoke up against new restrictions at the virtual meeting.

Mr Barclay said the government was analysing the infection and hospitalisation rates and “balancing that against economic consequences of any further restrictions.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific officer, has repeatedly said ministers should not hold off on restrictions and the sooner they are brought in, the more effective they are at preventing deaths and infections.

“Sir Patrick is right that time has a cost but at the same time we need to look at the consequence of decisions in terms of economic measures and that’s exactly what Cabinet discussed yesterday,” Mr Barclay told Sky News on Tuesday.

But he stressed that tighter rules “also carry health risks” including mental health implications.

Mr Barclay said there remains “considerable uncertainty with Omicron data” and advice from scientific advisers would be weighed up against the UK current position in the battle against the virus. He pointed to the country’s booster vaccination campaign, Plan B restrictions and antivirals being offered to some Covid patients in hospital, none of which were in place during previous waves of the virus.

What do Sage recommend and are people convinced?

In its latest advice published on Saturday, the Scientific Group for Emergencies, which advises the government on Covid-19, gave a warning that the number of Omicron cases was increasing very rapidly in England and doubling about every two days.

It said the rate of growth was the fastest since March 2020, when the pandemic was in its early stages.

The group argued that without further restrictions, “modelling indicates a peak of at least 3,000 hospital admissions per day in England”, and urged minister to consider more rules.

“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,” Sage said.

It also recommended a ban on indoor mixing of households and the closure of non-essential shops and said “the earlier interventions happen, the greater the effect they will have”.

But in light of the alleged lockdown-breaking Christmas parties held at Downing Street, the public’s trust of the government is lower than it was last year.

Many Britons have taken to Twitter to push back against Sage’s advice and rip up modelling put forward by the scientists.

One man accused the group of “screaming for more lockdowns” while failing to take into consideration the mental-health effects it could have.

Dr Margaret Harris, spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation, urged people to avoid large gatherings over the Christmas period.

She said people are most likely to spread Covid-19, particularly Omicron, and catch the virus in social settings.

Dr Harris said if people are hosting persons from other households, rooms should be well-ventilated, and stressed that people could still contract Omicron even if they have had a booster vaccine.

“Omicron is very good a spreading. The problem is people are getting confused between the severe version and just the virus getting into your body,” she told Sky News.

“The vaccines are designed to keep you out of hospital, protect from the severe version, protect the hospital from filling up and of course protect us from all dying.

“But they’re not so good at stopping it from getting into your nose and staying there for a little while, long enough for you to breathe on somebody else and perhaps pass it to them.”

How are businesses helped?

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Rishi Sunak announced £1 billion ($1.33bn) in financial support for hospitality and leisure companies affected by a fall in business following the spread of the variant.

Pubs, restaurants and other eligible businesses, believed to number about 200,000, will be able to claim one-off cash grants of up to £6,000 each.

The government will also provide £30m to top up a cultural recovery fund to support institutions such as theatres and museums.

Small and medium size companies will be able to claim compensation from the government for the cost of sick pay for their employees.

The hospitality sector has repeatedly called for state help in recent weeks, as soaring coronavirus infections spark staff absences and tumbling demand.

“The current situation is very difficult, especially for those in the hospitality industry,” Mr Sunak said.

He repeated Mr Johnson’s message that the government cannot rule out any further restrictions.

“We’re just dealing with an enormous amount of uncertainty at the moment.”

Updated: December 22, 2021, 11:10 PM
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