The variant is currently circulating through community transmission in the UK, with Heath Secretary Sajid Javid estimating that cases could “exceed one million” by the end of December.
At a glance: 5 key points
- Boris Johnson has confirmed that England will be moving to ‘Plan B’ restrictions in the next week
- Many had suspected that the government would make the announcement amid a surge in Covid cases and the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant
- Over the next week, those in England will be expected to return to work from home, with an expansion of the face mask rule and vaccine passports will also be introduced
- On Wednesday 8 December, the UK recorded 51, 342 positive Covid cases, with 568 cases of Omicron reported also, and 161 Covid-related deaths reported
- The new restrictions come over warning that the new Omicron strain is highly transmissible, with cases set to skyrocket over the next month
What are the ‘Plan B’ new rules and when are they introduced?
Mr Johnson made an announcement during a press briefing on Wednesday 8 December.
He warned that restrictions will be reimposed over fears that Omicron is “growing much faster” than the Delta variant.
People will be expected to return to working from home where possible from Monday 13 December.
Face masks will also be required in more venues including cinemas, theatres and places of worship from Friday 10 December, however they will not be made mandatory in bars, pubs or restaurants. Exceptions to wearing masks include when eating, drinking, exercising or singing.
There will also be an introduction of a vaccine pass for all large venues and events in the country, which will be enforced on Wednesday 15 December to allow businesses to prepare infrastructure.
Venues include those indoors that are unseated with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue hosting more than 10,000 people, and a negative lateral flow test will also be accepted in lieu of a vaccine pass.
Those identified as a close-contact of someone who has tested positive will be required to undertake daily lateral flow testing, replacing the 10-day isolation period.
The new rules will be in place over Christmas and New Year and will be reviewed on 5 January.
What did Boris Johnson say in the conference?
Despite introducing new restrictions, the Prime Minister said that people should not cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays.
He said: “The best way to ensure we all have a Christmas as close to normal as possible is to get on with Plan B, irritating though it may be it is not a lockdown.
“We don’t want nativity plays to be cancelled, we think it’s okay currently on what we can see to keep going with Christmas parties but obviously everybody should exercise due caution.”
The press conference came amid scandal for Mr Johnson and his party, who are currently battling claims that illegal Christmas parties took place in Downing Street last year while London remained under strict tier three restrictions.
Mr Johnson, who denies that any such parties took place, was under pressure today after leaked footage from December 2020 showed Downing Street staff joking about an alleged party.
In the press conference today, he said: “Just imagine the counterfactual, colleagues say, or people say, we’re somehow making this announcement to coincide with events in politics well actually imagine if this step were to be delayed because of political events of one kind or another, what would people say then?
“You’ve got to act to protect public health when you’ve got the clear evidence.”
Professor Chris Whitty said he understood the public’s anger over the scandal and the re-introduction of restrictions, saying: “I can see why people feel deflated, but this is a setback, this is not a situation where we are back to square one.”
What has been the reaction to the Plan B restrictions?
The announcement of extra restrictions ahead of the busy Christmas period has been met with mixed reactions.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: “Requiring people to work from home over the busy Christmas period will hit jobs – unless ministers bring back furlough.”
Kate Nicholls, head of trade body UKHospitality, said that without appropriate support for the industry such as business rates relief and grants, the results could be “catastrophic”.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the UK as a whole faced a “tough question” in whether Plan B restrictions, which are similar to rules already in place in Scotland, would be enough to fight the Omicron strain.
She tweeted: “Re UK gov announcement of Covid Plan B today, all these protections are already in place in Scotland and have helped us get Delta cases down. Tough question we all face in period ahead is whether these protections will be strong enough against a rapidly spreading Omicron variant…
“Even if (and it is still if) Omicron doesn’t cause more severe disease, the numbers of people who might be infected by its faster spread will create big challenges for NHS and economy - so we need to consider carefully (but quite quickly) what proportionate response needed.
“n meantime, all of us complying strictly with current protections will help. And even if you feel angry with a politician just now, please remember just how important compliance is for the health & safety of you, your loved ones and the country.”
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