The Prime Minister is weighing up new Covid restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant but the picture is highly uncertain
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Only weeks ago, Boris Johnson declared that he was “absolutely confident” that this Christmas would be better than last year.
But the emergence of the Omicron variant has thrown plans into chaos and conjured up grim echoes of last year’s cancelled festivities.
For weeks the Prime Minister insisted people could go ahead with Christmas gatherings – despite increasing calls from top medics to cut back on socialising.
But with infections surging, the Prime Minister now faces a nightmare before Christmas as he weighs up imposing new restrictions to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.
Mr Johnson is not expected to bring in new measures this week, after delaying a decision yesterday in the face of reported opposition from his own Cabinet.
But ministers have failed to rule out a circuit breaker lockdown after Christmas as they await new data on the Omicron variant.
So what are the options and how will Boris Johnson make his decision?
Banning indoor mixing, lockdown and being cautious
The PM is believed to be weighing up several options on how to proceed.
The first is simply advising people to limit their their contacts – particularly indoors – but without making it a legal requirement.
Nicola Sturgeon is taking a similar approach in Scotland, where people are advised to reduce their social contacts but they can go ahead with Christmas plans.
This seems to be the message coming from Government today. Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay told people to have a “cautious” Christmas and said his own plans had been scaled back.
Another option is making curbs on household mixing mandatory. Insiders have suggested a return to Step 2 of the Covid roadmap could be on the cards from as early as December 27.
The restrictions, last in place in April this year, banned indoor household mixing and forced pubs and restaurants to serve punters outside.
This could be done as part of a so-called “circuit breaker” lockdown, lasting for up to four weeks.
A ban on large events such as football matches and concerts has also reportedly been discussed.
The nuclear option is a full lockdown but this would only be if scientific evidence suggests the NHS is very likely to be overwhelmed and boosters are less effective than experts think.
A decision has not yet been made on any restrictions and ministers are waiting for more data.
Hospitalisations from Omicron
One of the key factors throughout the pandemic is how many people end up in hospital with Covid.
The Omicron variant appears to spread quickly and is driving up coronavirus cases across the country.
Former SAGE expert Jeremy Farrar said transmission of the Omicron variant is “eye-wateringly high” but there was still huge uncertainty about what this will mean in terms of hospitalisations and deaths.
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After yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Boris Johnson said the Government needed to be clearer on the rate of hospital admissions associated with Omicron before a decision could be made.
A study from Imperial College London expected today could provide critical evidence on the severity of Omicron – and the threat it poses for the NHS.
Is the NHS in danger of being overwhelmed
If lots of people end up needing hospital treatment then that risks overwhelming the NHS, which is already under serious strain.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a major incident on Saturday to ease pressure on the capital’s hospitals.
An internal document from NHS London, seen by the Health Service Journal (HSJ), said recent modelling predicts that the London Ambulance Service, A&Es and the “general and acute bed base are likely to become overwhelmed due to rising Covid demand in the next two to three weeks”.
POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
It said services “are under exceptional pressure given the increased ask being placed on Covid vaccination capacity”, together with social distancing measures in healthcare and usual winter pressures.
SAGE modelling also warned that hospitalisations could run at 3,000 a day without new restrictions.
The NHS traditionally faces pressures in the colder months from flu and other respiratory illnesses, which is another thing for ministers to consider.
How well the vaccine holds up
Boris Johnson has bet the house on a mass rollout of the booster campaign.
The NHS has been tasked with jabbing every eligible adult by New Year’s Eve in a bid to see off the threat of Omicron.
The success of the UK’s vaccine rollout has been critical to the fight against the virus and the public appears to have got the message on boosters.
As of Sunday, 28,978,244 people had received a booster or a third dose in the UK, a day-on-day rise of 846,466.
Early data from Imperial College London recently suggested that vaccines are less effective against Omicron than the previous Delta strain – but boosters could make the difference.
Researchers found protection against symptomatic Omicron infection dropped to between 0% and 20% after two doses, and between 55% and 80% after a booster.
The effectiveness of jabs against hospitalisation from Omicron fell from more than 95% against Delta to between 80% and 86% against Omicron 60 days after the vaccine.
Any new data on how well the boosters are working will be critical – along with the continued take-up of boosters.
Winning over mutinous Tory MPs
Like it or not, this is also a political decision for the Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson has the power to make decisions that affect every part of people’s daily lives – but that power hinges on his ability to take top ministers and MPs with him.
The PM’s authority has taken an absolute battering after a grim week where he suffered a humiliating by-election defeat in a Tory safe seat at the hands of the Lib Dems and nearly 100 of his MPs rebelled against Plan B measures.
It also comes after weeks of damaging allegations of rule-breaking parties in Westminster last year, which are now subject to an inquiry.
The Government has said that Parliament will be given a vote on any new Covid restrictions, meaning MPs could be hauled back to Westminster at short notice in the coming days.
So the PM will need to persuade his increasingly mutinous MPs to back the plans – and hope that Labour also stays on side.
And he’ll have to win over his Cabinet too, with reports that big hitters like Rishi Sunak are reluctant to see further restrictions.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.