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Ruin Christmas and we’ll oust you, Tory MPs warn PM as Sajid Javid said nothing could be ruled out

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Boris Johnson was under growing pressure last night not to impose lockdown restrictions that will ruin Christmas for the second year in a row.

The Prime Minister is considering curbs on mixing indoors in England that could be announced within days.

And Health Secretary Sajid Javid yesterday refused to rule out Covid measures coming into force before Christmas Day.

Tory MPs last night said any attempt to toughen rules before Christmas will provoke letters seeking to oust Mr Johnson as party leader.

And ministers indicated they will not back new curbs. Rishi Sunak is understood to be arguing that they need to plot a clear route out of restrictions before they are imposed, while Liz Truss says she is ‘uncomfortable’ with the current curbs.

It comes as the official number of confirmed cases of the Omicron variant rose by nearly 50 per cent to 37,000 in just 24 hours.  

Families are desperate to spend Christmas together after last year’s Covid lockdown rules meant millions were forced to be apart or severely scale back their celebrations.

It is understood Mr Johnson is resisting calls for restrictions ahead of December 25, but there are mounting fears they will be imposed after that, spoiling New Year plans for millions.

Scientists are urging the Prime Minister to bring in restrictions quickly, amid warnings that hospitals will struggle to cope with rising infection numbers. 

Mr Javid repeatedly declined to rule out imposing tough restrictions before Christmas as he warned there are ‘no guarantees’ Christmas Day will go ahead without a lockdown. The Health Secretary acknowledged that data about the Omicron variant remained incomplete – but suggested it might be necessary to make decisions before a full picture is available. 

‘If you wait until data is absolutely perfect it may well be too late,’ he said. 

The Health Secretary admitted ‘everything is under review’ after SAGE delivered a grim assessment that the number of infections could reach two million by the end of the month without tougher restrictions – floating a ‘circuit breaker’ ban on households mixing and closure of non-essential shops.

In other developments:

  • A record of nearly one million jabs were given on Saturday as Mr Javid blasted vaccine refuseniks for taking up hospital beds that could be used by other patients.
  • The UK recorded 82,886 Covid-19 cases yesterday – up 69 per cent from a week earlier – but the number of deaths fell from 52 to 45;
  • Ministers are considering slashing the quarantine period for people who test positive for Covid from ten to seven days; 
  • Germany ruined Christmas travel plans for thousands of Britons by effectively banning them from entering the country amid fears of the Omicron variant;
  • Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi called on former teachers to sign up to help with potential school staff shortages
Boris Johnson was under growing pressure last night not to impose lockdown restrictions that will ruin Christmas for the second year in a row

Boris Johnson was under growing pressure last night not to impose lockdown restrictions that will ruin Christmas for the second year in a row

Asked about ruling out new coronavirus measures before Christmas, Mr Javid told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘There are no guarantees in this pandemic.

‘At this point we just have to keep everything under review… We are assessing the situation. It’s very fast moving. There’s a lot that we still don’t know about Omicron. That’s the truth of the matter. The reality is there’s a lot of uncertainty.’

He argued that it was ‘time to be more cautious’, adding: ‘We know this thing is spreading rapidly.’

In minutes published at the weekend, experts from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) urged the Government to reintroduce ‘more stringent measures… very soon’, warning that without action, there could be a peak of 3,000 patients a day needing a hospital bed in England.

The scientists suggested reintroducing of curbs such as banning indoor social contact and hospitality. Mr Javid said the advice was ‘very sobering’, adding: ‘We take it very seriously. We do have to challenge data and underlying assumptions, I think that is appropriate, and take into account a broader set of facts.’

The Health Secretary suggested people should limit their social contact over Christmas and limit hugs with relatives.

Cabinet sources last night characterised the mood in Downing Street as ‘jumpy’. Senior ministers believe Mr Johnson will hold off on imposing restrictions until after Christmas, but expect they could be announced within days. The Prime Minister has promised to recall Parliament over the festive period so MPs can hold a vote if he decides to bring in new curbs.

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to ‘hold firm’ against more restrictions and not make any ‘knee-jerk restrictions’.

He said: ‘Lockdowns, of any kind, should not become the default policy choice. Ministers need to balance wider impacts, not just Covid data.’ 

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said there was ‘no evidence’ for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas.

‘It would be wrong for the Government to lurch into what would be an economic crisis for the sake of supposition by scientists,’ he added. 

One of the Tory rebel ringleaders said if Parliament was recalled to vote on imposing new curbs ‘at least as many of us that voted against last time will do so again. If restrictions are put in place then more letters will go in.’ 

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to 'hold firm' against more restrictions and not make any 'knee-jerk restrictions'

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said there was 'no evidence' for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas

Mark Harper (left), chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to ‘hold firm’ against more restrictions and not make any ‘knee-jerk restrictions’. Meanwhile former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith (right) said there was ‘no evidence’ for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas

A busy Oxford Street and Regent Street in central London on the last shopping Sunday before Christmas

A busy Oxford Street and Regent Street in central London on the last shopping Sunday before Christmas

In interviews this morning, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the government has to use the ‘data that we have got’ and infections were rising quickly 

Britain has recorded 82,886 Covid cases, which is lower than yesterday’s figure of 90,418. But the number of cases has risen by 32,473, or 64.4 per cent, in seven days.  

Some 45 deaths were recorded today, a decrease of 66 from last week’s 111 and a percentage decrease of 59.5. 

And cases of the Omicron variant have risen by 50 per cent in just 24 hours to 37,101 as the UK Health Security Agency confirmed a further 12,133 cases today. 

Medical and science chiefs Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance briefed the Cabinet yesterday that more measures are required to stop hospital admissions soaring above 3,000 per day in England. Modelling suggests the peak could be as high as 10,000 and the daily death toll might reach 6,000.

However, there is deep resistance among ministers about the prospect of plunging millions of people back into lockdown wrecking Christmas again while evidence remains unclear.

Questions have also been raised about whether Mr Johnson even has the political capital to push through restrictions, after a massive revolt against Plan B last week and the bombshell resignation of his Brexit minister Lord Frost overnight, highlighting the danger of ‘coercive’ policies. 

The fast-moving nature of the situation was underlined tonight as the official number of confirmed cases rose by nearly 50 per cent to 37,000, with another 12,000 identified in 24 hours. There are believed to be far more infections as many either go undiagnosed or will not have been tested for yet.  

Mr Javid appeared to hint at a looming shift this morning, saying the SAGE analysis is ‘sobering’ and the government is ready to ‘do what is necessary’. 

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Javid said in his former career as a trader the ‘most important decisions’ were taken when data were ‘early and patchy, but a trend was emerging’. ‘Once that trend leads to a clear outcome, it may be too late to react to it,’ he wrote. 

SAGE papers from a meeting on Thursday caution that delaying curbs until 2022 would ‘greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.’

The advisers suggested reintroducing measures ‘equivalent to those in place after step 2 or step 1 of the roadmap in England’. At the first stage of the roadmap in March this year only one-on-one mixing was allowed outside of households, and non-essential retail was still shut. At the second stage the following month bars and restaurants could serve customers outdoors, and households were not permitted to mix indoors.  

Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay will chair a Cobra meeting later that is expected to consider the option of a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown.  

But Mr Johnson is thought to be sceptical of an immediate response and there would considerable opposition within his Cabinet. 

One minister told the Sunday Times: ‘We can’t have a situation where we lock down every winter and kill off the economy. We need to stop reading across what is happening in South Africa in terms of what is happening here. It is like comparing apples with pears.’

There is speculation that instead the ‘handbrake would be pulled’ after December 25, with claims an announcement has been pencilled in for Boxing Day. 

Boris Johnson has so far refused scientists' pleas for a last-ditch Christmas lockdown to quell the spread of the Omicron mutant variant

Boris Johnson has so far refused scientists’ pleas for a last-ditch Christmas lockdown to quell the spread of the Omicron mutant variant 

The number of confirmed cases of Omicron in England increased by 69 per cent on the previous day's total - up 9,427 to 23,168, figures from the UKHSA showed today

The number of confirmed cases of Omicron in England increased by 69 per cent on the previous day’s total – up 9,427 to 23,168, figures from the UKHSA showed today

Covid hospital admissions have spiked by more than a third in a week in Britain's Omicron hotspot of London, official data shows. Some 199 infected patients were admitted to wards in London on Tuesday, the most recent day UKHSA figures are available for

Covid hospital admissions have spiked by more than a third in a week in Britain’s Omicron hotspot of London, official data shows 

Crowds at the Sunday Columbia Road Flower market in East London this morning despite fears over Omicron's spread

Crowds at the Sunday Columbia Road Flower market in East London this morning despite fears over Omicron’s spread 

SAGE backs closing non-essential shops and ban on households mixing by New Year 

SAGE has backed a dramatic shutdown of non-essential shops and ban on households mixing to avoid a torrent of hospitalisations and deaths with Omicron running riot.

Minutes show the government’s key advisory body agreed on Thursday that hospitalisations could hit at least 3,000 a day in England alone without ‘stringent measures’.

Grim modelling from the SPI-M-O group considered at the meeting suggests admissions could go as high as 10,000 a day – with up to 6,000 daily deaths.

The SAGE consensus says ‘earlier interventions’ would have a ‘greater effect’ and could possibly be in place for a ‘shorter duration’, arguing they will be far less effective if delayed past New Year. 

The statement suggests effectively ripping up the government’s suposedly ‘irreversible’ roadmap out of lockdown – returning to stage 1 or 2, which means only essential retail opening and no mixing between households.

‘Illustrative scenarios from SPI-M-O suggest that measures equivalent to those in place after Step 2 or Step 1 of the Roadmap in England, if enacted early enough, could substantially reduce the potential peak in hospital admissions and infections compared with Plan B alone (medium confidence),’ SAGE said.

‘The timing of such measures is crucial. Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it is less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.

‘Slowing the wave of infections would also allow more people to receive boosters before they are potentially exposed to Omicron. This would prevent (not just delay) some hospitalisations and deaths.’

The SAGE papers make clear that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the threat posed by Omicron.

But they cite ‘high confidence’ that it spreads faster than the Delta variant and will sweep the country. 

SAGE has backed a dramatic shutdown of non-essential shops and ban on households mixing to avoid a torrent of hospitalisations and deaths with Omicron running riot.

Minutes show the government’s key advisory body agreed on Thursday that hospitalisations could hit at least 3,000 a day in England alone without ‘stringent measures’.

Grim modelling from the SPI-M-O group considered at the meeting suggests admissions could go as high as 10,000 a day – with up to 6,000 daily deaths.

The SAGE consensus says ‘earlier interventions’ would have a ‘greater effect’ and could possibly be in place for a ‘shorter duration’, arguing they will be far less effective if delayed past New Year. 

The statement suggests effectively ripping up the government’s suposedly ‘irreversible’ roadmap out of lockdown – returning to stage 1 or 2, which means only essential retail opening and no mixing between households.

‘Illustrative scenarios from SPI-M-O suggest that measures equivalent to those in place after Step 2 or Step 1 of the Roadmap in England, if enacted early enough, could substantially reduce the potential peak in hospital admissions and infections compared with Plan B alone (medium confidence),’ SAGE said.

‘The timing of such measures is crucial. Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it is less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.

‘Slowing the wave of infections would also allow more people to receive boosters before they are potentially exposed to Omicron. This would prevent (not just delay) some hospitalisations and deaths.’

The SAGE papers make clear that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the threat posed by Omicron.

But they cite ‘high confidence’ that it spreads faster than the Delta variant and will sweep the country.

Mr Javid told Trevor Phillips On Sunday on Sky News: ‘We’ve shown in the past as Government in dealing with this pandemic that we will do what is necessary but it’s got to be backed up by the data.’

He added: ‘We are watching the data and discussing it with our scientists and our best advisors almost on an hourly basis. And we will monitor that very carefully. We will keep the situation under review.’

He said various factors including vaccinations, antiviral medication and other treatments for Covid-19 mean ‘the situation today in terms of our defences is very different’.

Asked if Parliament would be recalled to give approval for new measures, Mr Javid said: ‘If, and it’s an if, the Prime Minister has already been clear to parliamentarians, if there was a need to take any further action we would recall Parliament and it would have to be a decision for Parliament. That is only right and proper.’

Mr Javid also launched a savage attack on vaccine refusers, saying they must think about the ‘damage they are doing to society’. 

He warned that 10 per cent of the population – more than five million people – have still not received jabs, and around nine out of 10 of those needing the most care in hospital were unvaccinated.

‘I just cannot emphasise enough the impact that they are having on the rest of society,’ he said.

‘They must really think about the damage they are doing to society by… they take up hospital beds that could have been used for someone with maybe a heart problem, or maybe someone who is waiting for elective surgery.

‘But instead of protecting themselves and protecting the community they choose not to get vaccinated. They are really having a damaging impact and I just can’t stress enough, please do come forward and get vaccinated.’ 

Mr Johnson has been arguing that a fast booster vaccination campaign can buy the NHS valuable time. In a glimmer of optimism it emerged that the NHS has broken the daily record again, handing out 830,000 of the jabs in England alone over 24 hours. 

Senior figures including Rishi Sunak and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps are also sceptical about cracking down further. 

But SAGE advisers have been telling the government that mixing of households should be banned ‘very soon’ to stop the Omicron variant running riot and sending hospitalisations about the peak from last Christmas. 

Minutes show the government's key advisory body SAGE agreed on Thursday that hospitalisations could hit at least 3,000 a day in England alone without 'stringent measures'.

Minutes show the government’s key advisory body SAGE agreed on Thursday that hospitalisations could hit at least 3,000 a day in England alone without ‘stringent measures’.

The statement suggests effectively ripping up the government's suposedly 'irreversible' roadmap out of lockdown (pictured) - returning to stage 1 or 2, which means only essential retail opening and no mixing between households

The statement suggests effectively ripping up the government’s suposedly ‘irreversible’ roadmap out of lockdown (pictured) – returning to stage 1 or 2, which means only essential retail opening and no mixing between households

Grim modelling from the SPI-M-O group considered at the meeting suggests admissions could go as high as 10,000 a day - with up to 6,000 daily deaths

Grim modelling from the SPI-M-O group considered at the meeting suggests admissions could go as high as 10,000 a day – with up to 6,000 daily deaths

More than 830,000 booster jabs were given in England yesterday as the rollout ramped up significantly

More than 830,000 booster jabs were given in England yesterday as the rollout ramped up significantly

Omicron Covid cases in South African ground zero ‘peaked on 6 December’ – three weeks after start of wave – but they are still rising in rest of the country 

Omicron cases in the South African ground zero peaked on December 6 , experts believe, but are still rising in the rest of the country.

Three weeks after the start of the wave, cases of the variant reached their highest level in Gauteng according to expert Louis Rossouw, which was first to feel the full force of the variant. 

The rapid rise and fall of Omicron cases in Gauteng has mystified experts, and Covid cases in other areas of South Africa are now rising rapidly.  

Some experts also point to data from South Africa which shows that far fewer people are hospitalised by Omicron leading to speculation that it could cause milder symptoms.  

Three weeks after the start of the wave, cases of the variant reached their highest level in Gauteng, which was first to feel the full force of the variant. This is according to Louis Rossouw, who has written a scientific paper on the Omicron variant in the country

Three weeks after the start of the wave, cases of the variant reached their highest level in Gauteng, which was first to feel the full force of the variant. This is according to Louis Rossouw, who has written a scientific paper on the Omicron variant in the country

However pessimistic experts counter that South Africa’s high levels of immunity from infection and young population could be responsible for the lower hospitalisation numbers.   

A total of 68,181 tests were conducted in the last 24hrs, according to The National Institute For Communicable Diseases Of South Africa (NICD).

It said there were 20,713 new cases, representing a 30.4 per cent positivity rate and an increase of 20% on last week. 

Charts tracking the rate of Omicron across South Africa show cases are falling in Gauteng, while rising elsewhere.

There were 20,713 new  Covid cases in South Africa today, an increase of 20% on last week and with a  a 30.4 per cent positivity rate

There were 20,713 new  Covid cases in South Africa today, an increase of 20% on last week and with a  a 30.4 per cent positivity rate

After reaching a peak of 10,100 per day on December 7 on a seven-day moving average, cases are now around 8,000 per day, according to Louis Rossouw, who has written a scientific paper on the Omicron variant in the country.

A further 35 Covid-19 related deaths have been reported in South Africa, bringing the total fatalities to 90,297.

 

Professor Sir Mark Walport acknowledged this is the second Christmas which could be ‘significantly ruined’ for people, but that he believed new measures are needed as infections are ‘rising fast’.

Echoing advice in recent days from England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, he said people should ‘be prudent and only have the social contacts which are really important to you’.

Sir Mark, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told Sky that action needs to be taken ‘to hold down the rate of hospital admissions, reduce the pressure on the workforce’, noting many people are off sick due to infection.

He added: ‘Most importantly of all, give people the chance to get vaccinated, to get boosted, and allow time for those vaccinations to have effect.’

Stricter measures could be imposed after Boxing Day, according to a report in The Sun newspaper, which said the contingency plan had not yet been presented to ministers.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who declared a major incident due to the ‘hugely concerning’ surge in cases across the capital, said it was ‘inevitable’ that new coronavirus measures would be brought in.

He told Marr there ‘must, must, must be a major package of support for our hospitality, culture, and retail’.

Mr Javid, defending their recent approach, said it was ‘not quite right to say the Government’s not doing anything at all’.

He told Marr: ‘I completely understand businesses now coming forward to say ‘I’m hard hit’, and they have every right to make those representations to Government.

‘The Chancellor and his team are listening, I think the Chancellor has done an excellent job throughout this pandemic in dealing with this and no doubt he will keep things under review.’

The official number of coronavirus cases has risen by 36,345, or 67 per cent, in seven days.

However there had been predictions that the total would be well into six figures by now.  

Deaths fell by five per cent on last week, to 125 from last Saturday’s 132. 

The aim of a ‘circuit breaker’ ban on household mixing would be to stop hospitalisations overwhelming the NHS until booster jabs can be given to all adults, which the government hopes to achieve in January. 

Some critics of the SAGE message point to data from South Africa which shows that far fewer people are hospitalised by Omicron leading to speculation that it could cause milder symptoms. 

They also say that the Omicron wave in the ‘ground-zero’ Gauteng region where the variant was first detected has peaked much more rapidly than previous waves. After rising rapidly for three weeks cases in Gauteng are now falling. 

SAGE advisers counter that South Africa’s high levels of immunity from infection and young population could be responsible for the lower hospitalisation numbers.   

Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of Sage, said it was clear that Plan B measures alone would not be enough to stop the spiralling numbers of Omicron cases in the Uk and that the Government needs to ‘act now’. 

He added: ‘Now, you could have it after Christmas, the problem is after Christmas it’s probably too late, it’s probably by then we will have had a huge surge of infections with all the impact upon society.’ 

The surging statistics came as Professor Neil Ferguson — whose projections have spooked No10 into lockdowns before — called for curbs to be tightened by New Year on the back of his latest modelling of the mutant strain. 

He told BBC 4’s Today Programme hospitalisations could be overwhelmed by Christmas as Omicron cases rise in the next week with a ‘very large epidemic underway’. He added: ‘The level of protection against severe disease is not perfect and the very large case numbers may still translate into very large numbers of hospitalisations.’ 

During the Sage meeting on Thursday, the experts backed a ban on indoor social contact and hospitality. In what could be a blow to Britons planning New Year parties, they want fresh measures to come in before January 1.

Leaked minutes from Sage, seen by the BBC, said scientists had told ministers that tougher measures need to be brought in ‘very soon’. 

‘The timing of such measures is crucial,’ said the minutes. ‘Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.’  

An emergency Cobra meeting this weekend will discuss if a joint response to the threat of the Omicron variant is needed across the UK. The meeting will raise fears that more curbs could be imposed before Christmas – despite the opposition of Tory MPs and Downing Street’s apparent determination to get through without them.

It comes as the number of confirmed Omicron cases in England reached 23,168, up 9,427 on the previous day’s total, figures from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on Saturday showed. Cases in Northern Ireland rose to 827, a rise of 514.

Officials draw up plans for two-week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown – including bans on households mixing

Plans for a two-week circuit breaker after Christmas with a ban on indoor mixing are being drawn up, it emerged last night.

Leaked minutes of a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warn that restrictions are needed ‘very soon’ to avoid hospitalisations rising to 3,000 a day.

During the meeting on Thursday, the experts backed a ban on indoor social contact and hospitality.

In what could be a blow to Britons planning New Year parties, they want fresh measures to come in before January 1.

‘The timing of such measures is crucial,’ said the minutes, seen by the BBC.

‘Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.’

Whitehall officials are preparing draft regulations that would ban meeting others indoors except for work purposes, and pubs and restaurants would be limited to outdoor service only, reported The Times.

According to the Sage minutes, the advisers recommended moving back to restrictions set down in Step One and Two of the roadmap out of lockdown in the spring, which involved a ban on indoor social contact and indoor hospitality.

They warned that solely sticking to Plan B could lead to ‘at least’ 3,000 hospital admissions a day in England. Admissions have been between 800 and 900 a day in the past week. Introducing these measures early enough ‘could substantially reduce the peak in hospital admission and infections compared with Plan B alone’, the minutes said.

Boris Johnson was presented with several options yesterday for a so-called Plan C, ranging from ‘mild guidance to nudge people, right through to lockdown’, according to the Financial Times.

Ministers will decide this weekend whether any new Covid restrictions are needed following the latest dire warnings from scientists.  

Scotland’s cases have reached 792, an increase of 96, and in Wales there are 181, up 22 on the previous day.

It means in total there has been a 67 per cent rise in cases in just 24 hours – as the total figure for the UK reached 24,968, according to the UKHSA. 

The number of deaths in England of people with the Omicron variant has risen to seven, the UK Health Security Agency said, from the previous figure of one.

Hospital admissions in England for people with confirmed or suspected Omicron rose to 85, from 65. 

Yesterday, Britain recorded its highest number of daily infections since the pandemic began, with a total of 93,045 people testing positive for Covid in the past 24 hours, up 60 per cent in a week. 

Industry experts had feared the Government’s increasingly alarmist messaging surrounding the Omicron mutant strain was affecting customer confidence over what should be a peak period for pubs, bars and restaurants.

Festive takings are expected to fall by up to 40 per cent in December – crippling venues that survived by a thread during previous lockdowns and expect to receive no financial support this time around.

Prof Reicher, who was speaking to Times Radio in a personal capacity, said the time to act was now to prevent the new variant overwhelming the NHS.

It comes amid reports officials have been drawing up draft plans for a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown after Christmas.

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 PM 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 Times reported that draft regulations were being prepared which could ban meeting others indoors except for work purposes and that pubs and restaurants would be limited to outdoor service only, for two weeks after Christmas.

Professor Ferguson told the BBC yesterday that Omicron did not yet appear to be more severe than the previous Delta and Alpha variants.

He said: ‘The severity aspect is the least well defined because we’ve observed relatively few hospitalisations. Case numbers are low. We don’t see a particularly strong signal of any change in severity compared with Delta. 

‘That’s not to say it’s going to look like the Alpha wave we had a year ago because we do expect all those people with immunity and vaccination will have milder disease. 

‘But intrinsically Omicron doesn’t look to be much different to Delta. There is a lot of uncertainty so we’ll know a lot more about that in a week’s time because numbers of cases and hospitalisations are building quickly.’

Shoppers are seen at The Shames in York on the final Saturday shopping day before Christmas, amid fears over rapidly rising cases of the Omicron variant

Shoppers are seen at The Shames in York on the final Saturday shopping day before Christmas, amid fears over rapidly rising cases of the Omicron variant

Having two vaccinations or Covid previously gives Britons ‘very little’ protection from the virus – but they will still have 85-90 percent protection from serious illness, he added.

‘From a public health perspective it means we expect immunity people have built up over the last 12 months to be better preserved against severe disease than against infection. If you’ve been infected before or only had two doses of the vaccine you have very little protection against being infected with Omicron. 

‘But the protection against severe disease should hold up well. Perhaps 85-90 percent protection. The challenge we face with a very large epidemic on the way is even that level of protection against severe disease is not perfect and the very large case numbers may still translate into very large numbers of hospitalisations.’

He said the country is currently at risk of overwhelming the NHS. ‘With increasing amounts of data coming in. It is a real concern we will be heading into something that has the risk of affecting the behaviour of the health service. People are changing their behaviour and that will have an impact, whether it is enough is hard to say.’  

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been pictured arriving back in the UK at Heathrow Airport for crunch talks with furious hospitality bosses struggling with plummeting demand due to the Omicron mutant strain

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been pictured arriving back in the UK at Heathrow Airport for crunch talks with furious hospitality bosses struggling with plummeting demand due to the Omicron mutant strain

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