Boris Johnson says he ‘won’t hesitate’ on more restrictions
After two-hour emergency Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister last night pledged to review data on the surging levels of the covid variant “hour by hour” amid growing concern about the pressure on the NHS.
But he held back from immediate action, acknowledging that the arguments about the impact of omicron were “finely balanced.”
MPs were last night braced for a recall of Parliament shortly after Christmas to rubber stamp a new swathe of restrictions.
At yesterday’s virtual Cabinet meeting, ministers clashed over the reliability of experts’ forecasts for the number of hospitalisations expected to be caused by the omicron surge. Several senior ministers were understood to be unconvinced by the evidence.
The row comes as a shock online poll of Daily Express readers found more than half of would ignore emergency restrictions if they were introduced for Christmas gatherings. Fifty-two per cent of respondents to the survey by Express.co.uk said they would not abide by new measures introduced by Christmas Day.
Speaking to broadcasters shortly after the virtual Cabinet meeting broke up, the Prime Minister said: “We agreed that the situation is extremely difficult and the arguments either way were very, very finely balanced because we’ve got cases of Omicron surging across the country now, we’ve got hospitalizations rising quite steeply in London.”
The Prime Minister called an emergency Cabinet meeting.
Hospitalisations are expected to rise due to the surge of Omicron cases.
He added: “We agreed that we should keep the data from now on under constant review, keep following it hour by hour.
“And unfortunately, I must say to people we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public and to protect public health to protect our NHS and we won’t hesitate to take that action.
“But in the meantime, what I would say to everybody is: please exercise caution as you as you as you go about your lives; please think of the guidance and I think protecting yourself and your loved ones; and please get a booster.”
Figures from the UK Health Security Agency yesterday revealed confirmed cases of Omicron in England have risen by 6,777 to 41,250.
Mr Johnson said the Government was examining a range of measures to try to slow the speed of the omicron spread.
Possible measures are understood to include limits household mixing, the return of social distancing and an 8pm curfew on pubs and restaurants. A full return to lockdown has not been ruled out.
Pubs and restaurants may be closed in order to curb Omicron.
Mr Johnson said: “I can certainly say that we’re looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.
“But at the moment what I think we want people to focus on is exercising caution.”
His advice to the public in the coming days was to continue to wear masks in indoor settings, maintain good ventilation and carry on regularly hand washing.
Mr Johnson said many people had already changed their behaviour following the Government’s earlier decision to move to “Plan B” contingency measures including mandatory face coverings.
“I think what you’re seeing already is the British public understanding that and you can see in people’s patterns of behaviour since we went to Plan B, that they are changing the way they go about their lives.
“They are changing some of the assumptions they make about the things that they want to do.
“And I’m afraid to say and I know that that has had consequences for some parts of our economy in some parts of the hospitality sector
“Of course I regret that but if that can help to get down the way that the disease is multiplied, that can be very helpful to us and to the country.
Mandatory face coverings were a part of ‘Plan B’.
“But what really matters is for everybody to get vaccinated and get boosted above because the booster really does give you a very high level of protection,” the Prime Minister said.
He added: “There are still some things that we need to be clear about before we decide to go further and who should go.
“But I’ve got to say to the British public and I say to everybody, we will not exclude going further if we have to do things to protect the public.
“The public are already taking steps to protect each other and protect themselves and it’s wonderful to see how many people are coming forward to be vaccinated.
“I say thank you to them, thank you to the incredible army of vaccinators and all the volunteers.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid yesterday revealed a new record was hit by the booster roll out at the weekend when more than a million vaccinations were delivered in a single day.
He tweeted: “Just confirmed that over a million jabs were delivered across the UK on Saturday – what an achievement.
“Well done to the NHS, Armed Forces, volunteers and British public.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid
Tory backbenchers last night welcomed the Prime Minister’s decision to hold off from new restrictions last night.
Former Cabinet minister Esther McVey tweeted: “Pleased the Cabinet and PM (recognising where majority opinion is in Parliamentary Party) are now listening to their backbench MPs and for once pushed back on the scaremongering by the lockdown fanatics.
“It seems the 100-strong backbench rebellion last week has made a difference.
Senior Tory MP John Redwood said a minister had told him the Cabinet “are not using the scientific forecasts of a surge in Omicron to plan extra beds as there is no reliable data on severity or transmission yet to base such action on.”
But Labour attacked the Prime Minister’s decision not to act immediately.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Boris Johnson is too weak to stand up to his own backbenchers, many of whom have no plan beyond ‘let the virus rip’.
“Today, while businesses across the country wonder if they can continue to trade, and families make frantic calls about whether they will see each other this Christmas, true to form the Prime Minister has put his party before the public.
“Rather than set out a clear plan for the country, he has chosen to protect himself from his own MPs by simply not saying anything. Boris Johnson is unfit to lead.”
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Yesterday’s Cabinet discussions followed fresh warnings from scientific experts about the threat posed by comicron.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases since 2019, has said the increase in deaths and cases of Omicron was a “serious concern”.
Prof Gupta, who is also a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said we are in a different situation compared with last year but the latest figures are still “of great concern”.
He said: :”The sheer numbers that are going to be affected because of the increased transmissibility of this virus (and this) is going to potentially overwhelm our health service. So that’s a really critical situation that we’re facing.”
He added: “Even if the vaccines protect us to a significant degree, then the increased transmissibility and penetration of the virus into communities that we’re seeing already is putting a large amount of pressure (on the NHS) because a very small fraction of a very large number still translates to significant numbers being hospitalised.”
Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of government advisory body the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), said: “The safest thing is not to meet up before Christmas.
“If you want a good Christmas dinner, I would say be very careful about meeting up before Christmas. But you can do things to stack the odds in your favour if you ever do meet up – the first thing to do is to make sure that you have a lateral flow test.
“They’re not perfect but, if we take them, they improve our odds. Make sure that the spaces we go into are as well ventilated as possible, that we think about distancing, meet outdoors if we can.
“We can do all sorts of things to stack the odds in our favour but the bottom line is the more we meet before Christmas, the more we put Christmas at risk.”
Senior Tory MP Peter Bone said last night: “Parliament should be recalled this Wednesday.
“Members of Parliament must be able to scrutinise the government over the current Covid situation and whether there are to be new restrictions or not. Parliament should be sitting at this critical time.”
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