New Year’s Eve restrictions are increasingly unlikely, Government sources have said – after an official report confirmed omicron is likely to be a far milder variant of Covid.
A new analysis by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) found that the risk of admission to accident and emergency was 31 to 45 per cent lower when a person develops omicron rather than delta, while the risk of hospitalisation was 50 to 70 per cent lower.
The Prime Minister will use his Christmas message on Friday to urge Britons to get the Covid jab, declaring it a “wonderful” festive gift that people can give to their family and the nation.
Boris Johnson will also compare the spirit of neighbourliness intrinsic to getting the vaccine to the “teaching of Jesus Christ”, which is “love our neighbours as we love ourselves”.
His words echo those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said getting vaccinated against coronavirus is a moral issue. He said having the jab was an expression of Jesus’s teachings to “love one another” and “love your neighbour”, because of the protection it afforded to others.
The UKHSA’s findings were the third study of real-world data in two days indicating that omicron is less severe than other variants of coronavirus.
While there were 119,789 confirmed Covid infections on Thursday – the highest recorded in the pandemic – insiders said that the studies which indicate the variant is milder made New Year’s Eve restrictions “less likely”.
A Government source said it is the “working assumption” among key Whitehall figures that the Prime Minister will stop short of levying new legal curbs on socialising straight after Christmas, although the source stressed that the option had not been ruled out if the data worsened dramatically.
“Backbenchers are still very mutinous, which makes that sort of action rather less likely,” the insider said – noting the major revolt that took place last week against Covid passports, when 101 Tory MPs rebelled.
Recalling Parliament to debate restrictions is “difficult and undesirable next week”, the source said, but added that the Government “need to do something” in the face of rising cases. Putting forward tough advice was a leading proposal.
A second source close to Downing Street also said that a package of restrictions “doesn’t look as likely as it was” in the wake of the series of studies on omicron that have painted a less pessimistic picture of the variant.
However, other figures in Government warned it was “way way ahead of where we are” to suggest that ministers were weighing up options and making decisions.
“We’re not going to make a decision about after Christmas until after Christmas,” the source said. “We’re not at that stage yet of being in a place to make a decision about whether any further restrictions are necessary.”
No more announcements on possible Covid rules this week
Sajid Javid confirmed on Thursday that no announcements on future Covid regulations would be made this week, meaning Monday is the earliest date that any formal indication could be given about New Year festivities.
It is understood that No 10 has pinpointed December 28 as the most suitable day to recall the Commons next week, if Downing Street decides restrictions are needed. Mr Johnson has vowed to consult MPs if he pushes ahead with legal curbs.
Parliamentary authorities have made clear that two days’ notice would be needed to reopen the estate for the House to sit. That consideration would have to be balanced with the need to give New Year’s Eve revellers due notice of any change to the rules before December 31.
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Even if Mr Johnson eschews changing the law, he faces a potential backlash from his party over issuing tough advice.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the lockdown sceptic Tory MP, said: “At the moment, people are doing what they’ve been asked to do – be a bit more cautious, test when necessary, wear face masks – so there is no need to put out anything stronger.”
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of UKHSA, said the agency’s early findings on the lower level of hospitalisations caused by omicron were “encouraging” However, she cautioned that a significant number of people could still become seriously ill.
Mr Javid, the Health Secretary, also weighed in to warn that the NHS was in danger of being “overwhelmed” by the surge in omicron cases. he said officials were monitoring the data “hour by hour”.
An estimated 1.4 million people in the UK have Covid, according to the latest forecast.
A quarter of patients do not have primary Covid diagnosis
Hospital admissions in England reached 7,080 by Wednesday, the latest figure published. However, official data has also shown that up to one in three Covid patients may have developed the illness in hospital, sparking renewed warnings against using the figures to justify a new lockdown.
Omicron: Are we past the peak of infections?
It came as Professor Francois Balloux, an expert in infectious disease and director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, said that London is likely past the peak of Covid infections.
“We are seeing the peak of the wave of the omicron variant, at least in London and probably also in other parts of the UK – or peaking soon,” he told BBC Radio 4. “There’s a bit of a lag between infections and cases – it takes a little while for people to test positive – so infections have probably peaked.”
He said the nation was in “a more comfortable situation in many ways” than during previous waves, because so many Britons have been vaccinated or previously infected.
How is omicron comparing to previous waves?
Professor Andrew Hayworth, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “I think perhaps we can downgrade this from a hurricane to a very severe storm.”
However, as Britons attempt to check their Covid status before meeting with relatives for Christmas, reports of lateral flow test shortages have proliferated in new areas.
Backlash over harsher coronavirus restrictions elsewhere in the UK
Harsher restrictions have been unveiled across the rest of the UK this week. Nicola Sturgeon was told by the Scottish Conservatives to tear up her “too cautious” blueprint on Thursday, in the wake of “game-changing” research indicating omicron is milder than other variants.
She has cancelled traditional Hogmanay events, limited the number of fans able to attend sports matches and made table service mandatory in venues serving alcohol for three weeks from December 27.
Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, was meanwhile accused of lying by a former public health statistics chief after he suggested omicron was “probably” just as severe as delta – despite mounting scientific evidence that the reverse is true.
In Wales, the “rule of six” will be introduced in pubs, restaurants and cinemas from Boxing Day, while a cap of 30 will be levied on indoor gatherings.
A spokesman for the devolved administration insisted the measures were a “proportionate response” to the public health threat.