The government has insisted it is “not intending” to introduce more restrictions in the run-up to Christmas, despite the UK recording the highest daily total of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began
There were 78,610 new cases yesterday – the highest figure announced since mass testing began in summer last year, surpassing the previous record on 8 January when 68,053 new cases were reported. At the Downing Street press briefing on Wednesday, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned that more records were going to get broken.
There have been stark warnings of the NHS becoming overwhelmed, with Prof Whitty also warning of potential issues with the NHS workforce. He said the sharp rise of Omicron cases is likely to lead to lots of people, including healthcare workers, being ill at the same time.
In the wake of the surging variant, the Independent SAGE group of scientists has called for an immediate 10-day 'circuit-breaker' lockdown, accusing prime minister of “delaying” stricter rules.
Christina Pagel from Independent SAGE tweeted: "To prevent NHS being overwhelmed in a few weeks and for a safer Xmas we need to act now. Not next week, not after Xmas, now."
But this morning, health minister Gillian Keegan said the government was “not intending to make any more restrictions” between now and Christmas Day – but insisted Boris Johnson “won’t hesitate” to recall Parliament if he needed to bring in extra measures.
Following the introduction of some Plan B measures – including further mask mandates and COVID passes – Keegan told Sky News: "We had the debate this week, it was a very full debate, and obviously we've made a decision on that and we have introduced those...
Watch: PM: Wave of Omicron continues to roll in across the whole of the UK
"But of course the prime minister said, if we need to act he won't hesitate to act, and if that means we call in parliament, then that's what we have to do.
"All of us are going to continue to work and make sure everyone gets boosted – that’s why we're trying to go so fast with the booster programme.”
During the press conference on Wednesday, Johnson said he agreed with Prof Whitty about people being cautious ahead of Christmas – and told the public to “think carefully before you go” to celebrations, as the Omicron variant surged.
Prof Whitty told people “don’t mix with people you don’t have to” at events that are not among the most important to them.
The PM declined to go as far as Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has given specific guidance to urge people to limit their socialising to three households before and after Christmas.
But he said: “I agree totally with Chris about the response we’re already seeing from everybody, our general instinct to be more cautious.”
Hospitalisations from COVID in the UK remain significantly lower than from previous waves in the pandemic fo now. Deaths are also comparatively low, but have not had time to be impacted by Omicron yet.
Keegan insisted that Johnson and Whitty were “both basically saying the same thing” in their coronavirus messaging – but again denied they were imposing “lockdown by stealth”.
She added to Times Radio: “What they were saying was prioritise, because obviously the more contacts you have, the more chance you have of testing positive, and that would mean that you’d be isolated on Christmas Day.”
While the government has so far not signalled its intention to bring in more restrictions, Labour have said they will support any that are proposed in the new year.
Shadow heath secretary Wes Streeting was asked on Times Radio whether he would be imposing restrictions before Christmas if Labour was in government.
He said: “I don’t think anyone wants to see restrictions imposed ahead of Christmas.
“We’re watching the data closely, we talk to the chief medical officer, we talk to the chief scientific adviser and to the NHS, and we trust the advice that we receive, and we’re making it clear to the government that should any further restrictions be needed into the new year, then we stand ready to assist.”
Following Wednesday’s press conference, British Chambers of Commerce president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith warned of the potentially devastating impacts Johnson and Whitty’s remarks may have on the hospitality sector.
“The need for the chief medical officer to advise the public to ‘de-prioritise social contacts’ at tonight’s press conference will almost certainly have an enormous impact for businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector,” she said.
“Despite this still we heard no news of any new financial support measures coming from government to help those businesses, and others badly affected by the current restrictions.
“Until now the Treasury has stepped up at every stage of this crisis to help offset restrictions that limited business’ ability to trade fully, which is what makes its complete absence at this crucial moment all the more baffling.”
Watch: Whitty: 'Records will be broken a lot' in COVID case numbers