Concerns over the rapid spread of the Omicron variant lead the Government to announce further COVID-19 restrictions

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England is to move to ‘Plan B’ COVID-19 restrictions as the number of cases of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 rise sharply.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a raft of measures on home working, expansion of mandatory face mask use in indoor spaces, and the use of COVID-19 vaccination certificates at a Downing Street news conference.

Mr Johnson said that Omicron was growing much faster than the previous Delta variant and is spreading rapidly. Flanked by England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, he said that ‘568 cases have been confirmed through genomic sequencing across every region of the UK, and the true number is certain to be much higher’. UK Health Security Agency figures released after the press conference say there are 705 cases in the UK.

There is now evidence that the doubling time of Omicron in the UK ‘could currently be between 2 and 3 days’, the Prime Minister said.

Despite suggestions that Omicron could result in less severe disease than previous strains, he stressed that it was too early for such an assumption, and that ‘we know  the remorseless logic of exponential growth could lead to a big rise in hospitalisations, and therefore, sadly, in deaths’.

Mr Johnson had hoped to avoid tightening the restrictions, but conceded it was now ‘the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England’.

Measures were needed to ‘slow the spread of the virus, buy ourselves the time to get more boosters into more arms, especially in the older and more vulnerable people, and understand the answers to the key outstanding questions about Omicron’, he said.

The new restrictions

Though ministers had hoped to avoid tightening restrictions, it was now deemed ‘the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England’. 

Under the new measures:

  • From Monday 13 December, people should work from home where possible
  • Wearing face masks will become mandatory from Friday 10 December in most public indoor venues, including theatres and cinemas
  • The NHS COVID-19 pass will become mandatory in a week’s time for entry into nightclubs and venues where large crowds gather, including any venue that seats more than 10,000 people.

Downing Street also announced it would introduce daily contact tests for contacts of confirmed positive cases instead of the 10-day self-isolation period.

Mr Johnson also appealed to people to get all their COVID-19 vaccinations ‘because our scientists are absolutely confident that your immune response will be stronger if you’ve been boosted’.

He said: ‘Let’s do everything we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones this winter—and to reduce the pressures on our NHS.’

Parliament will debate the measures next week, with a vote expected to take place on Tuesday 14 December.

Commenting on tighter restrictions, Christina Pagel, Professor of Operational Research at University College London, said: ‘With Omicron doubling every 2 or 3 days in England right now, it is on track to become dominant by Christmas and continue growing rapidly, potentially putting huge pressure on the NHS which is already under immense strain.

‘Plan B measures will not be enough to stop its path to dominance, as the suggested measures won’t be enough to bring R under 1, but they will slow it down.’

Going forward, the Prime Minister said any further restrictions would be based on four key factors: efficacy of the vaccine; the severity of Omicron; speed of spread; and rate of hospitalisation.

Downing Street festive party embarrassment

The announcement of further restrictions comes at an awkward time for Mr Johnson after a video emerged of Number 10 staff joking as they appeared to rehearse how to handle media questions about an alleged lockdown Christmas party in Downing Street on 18 December last year.

In the video recorded 4 days later, and leaked to ITV News, the Prime Minister’s then spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, is heard to laugh as she remarks that ‘this fictional party was a business meeting, and it was not socially distanced’.

At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, Mr Johnson told MPs he was ‘furious’ when he saw the video and had asked Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to ‘establish the facts’.

The Daily Mirror reported that 40 to 50 people had attended last year’s event where ‘officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a Secret Santa’.

However, the Prime Minister told MPs today that ‘there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken, and that is what I have been repeatedly assured’.

Yesterday afternoon, Ms Stratton resigned from her current job in Number 10 and later apologised for her role in the video clip, saying she would ‘regret those remarks for the rest of my days’. 

This article was originally published on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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