Tougher Covid restrictions could soon be in place across England as more than 90,000 infections were recorded today.
The Omicron variant continues to spread throughout the country amid reports of a two-week circuit breaker lockdown, which could be in place before the end of the year.
A “major incident” was declared in London this afternoon, with the capital becoming a hotbed for the virus.
This week the UK recorded a record number of Covid cases for three days in a row – with 90,418 new cases confirmed today.
Sage experts have warned the government stricter restrictions are needed “very soon” in England in order to stop hospital admissions reaching 3,000 a day.
The BBC reports that leaked minutes of a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies held on Thursday say “the timing of such measures is crucial” and that “delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness”.
What measures could be introduced and when?
The Financial Times reported that Boris Johnson was presented with a number of options on Friday under a so-called Plan C, ranging from “mild guidance to nudge people, right through to lockdown”.
The newspaper quoted allies of the Prime Minister who claimed Mr Johnson still wanted to go down the guidance route, but that he also had to be realistic about the threat of Omicron.
The plans reportedly being drawn up would see indoor meetings with people you don’t live with once again being banned after Christmas.
Sources told The Times that ministers will be shown the plan “imminently” and the newspaper reports that under a new “Step 2” set of rules people would only be allowed to meet indoors for work purposes.
Meanwhile pubs and restaurants would once again have to serve customers outdoors.
The “rule of six” rule would be reintroduced for outdoor meetings, while shielding would return to protect the most vulnerable.
However schools and shops would not be shut under the plans, The Times reports.
The Welsh government has said it would close nightclubs from December 27 and impose a two-metre social distancing rule in offices – but it remains to be seen whether the circuit breaker begins the same day in England.
It has now been reported that those measures are likely to start pre-New Year’s Day – meaning December 27 to 30 are likely candidates, reports BirminghamLive.
All the places which would be forced to shut
Under the proposals being reported, pubs, restaurants and bars would be forced to do takeaway or serve customers outdoors.
Shops would stay open as well and it is understood beauty salons, hairdressers and nail bars could also continue operating, but customers wouldn’t be allowed to visit with friends or family members unless they are in a bubble.
There are fears theatres, cinemas and the like could close, due to a ban on indoor mixing.
Football stadiums would also be forced to close, and mass indoor events like gigs could be stopped as part of the fortnight shutdown.
What is the current situation in England?
Omicron is now the predominant variant among new cases of coronavirus in England, figures from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) published on Friday suggested.
Some 54.2% of a sample of new coronavirus cases across England with specimen dates for December 14 and 15 were found to have S gene target failure (SGTF) – a way of detecting the likely presence of Omicron.
Seven people have now died with the variant.
The UK’s eight worst Covid hotspots are now in London, where the variant has become the dominant strain, causing the overall cases to double in just a week.
The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 in London, which has seen some of the biggest rises in cases in the last seven days, has climbed to 1,534, up 28.6% on last week.
Across the UK, 7,611 people are in hospital with the virus, a rise of 163 patients (2 per cent) on the previous week.
Mr Johnson has warned Omicron is “a very serious threat to us now”.
When asked about conflicting messages from the Government and its advisers on socialising over the Christmas break, he added: “What both Chris Whitty and I are saying is that there is a big wave of Omicron coming through.
“People need to be prudent. You need to think about your budget of risk.”
What about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
A Cobra meeting is set to be held over the weekend with the leaders of the devolved nations.
On Friday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Omicron was now the dominant strain of coronavirus in Scotland, as she warned a “tsunami” of the variant was hitting the country.
Ms Sturgeon said the R number, which measures the rate of infection, could be above four and urged people to stay at home in the run-up to Christmas, saying the emergence of Omicron has been the “cruellest of blows”.
Over in Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford described Omicron as “the most serious development in the pandemic to date”.
Mr Drakeford said new restrictions will be brought in on December 27 “as we prepare for a large wave of infections”, adding they will be a “strengthened set of reasonable measures, which will include returning to the two-metre rule for social distancing”.
Public health officials have warned that in a worst-case scenario, Northern Ireland could be recording around 11,000 Covid cases a day in the middle of next month if no further restrictions are introduced
Stormont ministers will meet on Wednesday to consider potential new measures to help slow the spread.
Omicron and vaccines
Omicron largely evades immunity from past coronavirus infection or two vaccine doses and the risk of reinfection with Omicron is 5.4 times greater than that of the Delta variant, according to researchers at Imperial College London.
This suggests the protection against reinfection by Omicron from past infection may be as low as 19%.
Researchers estimated the proportion of Omicron among all Covid cases between November 29 and December 11 was doubling every two days up to December 11.
Based on this they also estimate the reproduction number (R) of Omicron was above 3, over the period studied.
Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock)
Modelling released by the university found no evidence of Omicron having lower severity than Delta, but data on hospital admission was very low at the time of the study.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from the college, said their findings suggest the “level of immune evasion means that Omicron poses a major, imminent threat to public health”.
According to the data, boosters are vital in controlling Omicron, but they may lose some effectiveness over time.
UK scientists became aware of the new strain – also known as B.1.1.529 – on November 23 after samples were uploaded to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On November 27, the Government said two cases of the variant had been identified in the UK, with the people involved linked to each other and to travel to southern Africa.