Boris Johnson has ruled out imposing any extra coronavirus restrictions before Christmas, but the decision on whether to lock down England afterwards is hanging in the balance.
The prime minister wants a few more days to assess data on London hospital admissions, the severity of the Omicron strain and how well vaccines protect against serious illness. If the data looks good, he will try to get by with tough guidance only. If not, plans have been drawn up for a two to four-week circuit breaker that would ban indoor mixing.
Has the government ruled out any further lockdown restrictions?
No. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said there would be no further announcements in England before Christmas — but he has not ruled out curbs afterwards. Johnson will meet scientists after Boxing Day to assess the data.
Why is Johnson waiting when Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all already announced restrictions after Christmas?
The calculation appears to be that having made the decision to allow celebrations as normal there is no need to decide yet. The period between Christmas and New Year tends to be quiet with people still spending time with families and friends. The key date is New Year’s Eve — that could be a super-spreader event. Therefore the plan is to reconsider that data after Christmas.
Does that mean that New Year’s Eve parties could be cancelled?
Yes. If Johnson does decide measures are necessary parliament is likely to be recalled on December 29 or 30, with the measures imposed for December 31.
What restrictions are likely to be imposed?
The most likely option would be to restrict the number of people allowed in large indoor venues such as nightclubs — that could effectively shut them. Large outdoor venues such as stadiums could also be asked to shut their doors. It is also possible that the government could ban groups of more than six meeting inside venues. This has been imposed in Scotland but not Wales. Seating may also be required in indoor hospitality settings.
Will households be banned from mixing in each other’s homes?
Unlikely but possible. Government sources have indicated that they want as far as possible to keep any restrictions to the minimum necessary. But if hospital admissions rapidly rise nothing can be ruled out entirely.
But isn’t Omicron less dangerous than Delta?
There is increasing, but not definitive, evidence of this. But if Omicron infects more people than other variants then even if there is a smaller percentage of hospital cases, overall the impact on the NHS could be worse than previous waves.
How will Johnson make his decision?
With difficulty. A paper released by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) points out that the Christmas break will mean data will be much less good than previously. It will mean Johnson and his team will not have a good idea of the speed of transmission as many people may not get tested until Monday.
What is a circuit breaker lockdown?
A relatively brief period of restrictions designed not to suppress coronavirus entirely but to delay its spread by bringing cases down so they climb from a lower base. Johnson judged Wales’s attempt at a circuit breaker last year to be a failure because cases soared immediately afterwards. This year the hope is that a circuit breaker would split the epidemic into two halves that the NHS would find more manageable, while giving time to complete the booster programme.
When did the prime minister announce the Christmas lockdown in 2020?
After weeks of trying to “save Christmas”, he was forced to ban household mixing for millions in London and the southeast on December 19. Elsewhere in England, the spread of the Alpha variant meant bubbles of three households were permitted only on Christmas Day. More areas were put into the top Tier 4 measures on Boxing Day, followed by a national lockdown on January 4.
What are the Covid rules in England?
In England they are still a light touch, with compulsory masks in confined spaces and proof of vaccination or negative tests required to enter large events and nightclubs. People with confirmed cases must isolate for seven days, cut down this week from ten. People are being urged to test themselves before meeting others and exercise caution, but this is not compulsory.
Scotland has announced tougher rules, including a limit of 500 people in outdoor public spaces for at least three weeks from Boxing Day. This effectively bans supporters from sports stadiums. Indoors the limits will be 100 standing or 200 seated.
In Wales, from Boxing Day, a rule of six will apply to gatherings in pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. There will also be a general requirement of two-metre social distancing in all premises open to the public and workplaces, where reasonable.
Large events will not be allowed indoors or outdoors. The maximum number of people who can gather at an indoor event will be 30 and 50 outdoors.
Why is action being considered in England?
The virus is spreading rapidly and hospital admissions in London, where the Omicron variant is most advanced, are rising fast. Modelling for Sage has suggested that on present trends there is little chance of keeping hospital admissions below 3,000 a day in England, with a worst-case estimate of 10,000 a day. This is far higher than January’s peak of 4,000 and NHS leaders fear that emergency care would not cope.
What would restrictions achieve?
Estimates by Sage’s Spi-M modelling group suggest that restrictions similar to step 1 of the government’s spring road map out of lockdown would halve the peak of hospital admissions to between 1,500 and 5,000 a day if they were imposed until boosters are completed in mid-January. This would involve a ban on indoor mixing and the return of the “rule of six” outside, with pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops shut. Restrictions similar to step 2, where shops were open and pubs and restaurants could serve outside, could mean a peak of 3,000 to 7,000 a day. Those rules were in place between April 12 and May 17.
Are the models too pessimistic?
Critics say that the modelling does not take into account findings that Omicron is less severe than the Delta variant. Scientists counter that they have considered this but that the speed at which the new variant is spreading still threatens to put unsustainable pressure on the NHS. Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist and member of the government’s Nervtag advisory group, said today that although findings about the severity of Omicron were “undeniably good news,” the fact that the variant was doubling every two to three days meant they bought less than a week’s time in terms of pressure on the NHS.
Won’t people’s natural caution make a big difference?
It might. The Sage models assume that people behave as they did during previous periods with work-from-home advice but no other restrictions, but acknowledge that spontaneous behaviour change “could significantly affect the peak of infections and hospitalisations”. Anecdotally, people seem to have become far more cautious in recent days and Johnson is understood to be tempted to see whether this will naturally slow the spread of Omicron enough to avoid restrictions.
How many vaccinated people are getting Covid?
With nine in ten people vaccinated, most infections are in people who have had their jabs. But as the vaccines give better protection against severe disease, the unvaccinated are even more disproportionately represented in hospital. Most people under 50 being treated for Covid are not fully vaccinated and most of those in intensive care are unvaccinated.