Ministers have ruled out regional lockdowns to tackle the Omicron coronavirus variant, according to reports – meaning that all of Britain could pay the price for some Londoners not getting jabbed.
A return to regional restrictions, such as tiers – which were credited with slowing the virus but ultimately failed to head off a third national lockdown – will not go ahead, reports The Times.
A government source told the newspaper: ‘We are not looking at doing regional restrictions. That is not on the table.’
Referring to regional curbs, another source added: ‘It is difficult for people to understand because of different sets of rules. We want one set of rules for everyone in the country, which is easier for people to understand.’
The move could result in regulations being imposed on parts of the UK with comparatively low hospital admissions to areas such as London, where medics fear that rate could increase in the coming weeks due to a lag between people getting infected and becoming severely ill.
The latest data shows 374 people were admitted to hospitals in the capital on Boxing Day – nearing the 400-a-day level that could trigger a Government intervention – up 73 per cent on the week before.
London also has the lowest vaccination rate of any region in the country and therefore is more susceptible to a rise in severe infections.
Britain’s Covid cases reached another pandemic high on Tuesday even without data from either Scotland or Northern Ireland amid calls for New Year’s Eve revellers in England to party sensibly.
UK Health Security Agency bosses logged 129,471 positive tests in the last 24 hours, up 43 per cent on last week’s UK-wide figure of 90,629.
But the tally only includes daily infection data from England, which saw a similar-sized jump in cases, as well as backlogged numbers for Wales. Neither of the other two UK nations have yet to feed their numbers into Britain’s official toll.
Statistical recording delays over the festive period means the exact scale of the UK’s Omicron-fuelled outbreak is unclear. Scotland and Northern Ireland are set to publish five days’ worth of data tomorrow, which could skew the overall virus figures even further.
Christmas reporting black-outs have also warped death figures, with just 18 victims recorded today and all of them in England. Unusually high fatality tolls are expected towards the end of this week. And no testing numbers have been released for after Christmas yet, making it impossible to tell whether England’s uptick in cases was driven by increased swabbing rates.
Crucial hospitalisation figures have been kept up-to-date in England throughout the festive spell, however. Similar UK-wide figures are also expected later this week.
Data today showed 1,374 coronavirus-infected patients were admitted onto wards on Boxing Day, up nearly 50 per cent on the previous Sunday. It marked England’s highest daily toll since February, during the darkest days of the country’s devastating second wave.
But a senior health official called for caution in misinterpreting the figures, warning hospitals were now recording more ‘incidental’ cases due to the rapid spread of Omicron.
It came as one of No10’s health ministers, Gillian Keegan, said people should go out and have fun in 2022 but take steps to limit their chances of catching the virus.
She advised people to take lateral flow tests before hitting the town and consider having parties outdoors, with temperatures expected to hit the mid teens Celsius in parts of the UK. However, rapid tests from the Government’s website were unavailable for home delivery for the second day running today — at least the sixth time the swabs have run out since the start of December.
The message came as a leading vaccines expert backed Boris Johnson‘s refusal to toughen England’s Covid restrictions to bring them into line with the other Home Nations, saying that mass deaths and hospitalisations from the deadly disease are ‘history’.
Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the Vaccines Taskforce, said the public had been ‘pretty responsible’ in its response to the spread of the Omicron variant.
However, Mr Johnson’s decision not to follow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in having stricter Covid measures in place prompted a backlash from some medics — while his own backbenchers welcomed the move.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data showed 129,471 people tested positive in England over the last 24 hours, up 43 per cent on last week’s figure of 90,629 — which included case numbers for the other home nations as well
The daily death figures were also affected by reporting blips over the festive period, confusing the true state of the current Covid outbreak
Ministers are thought to be watching admissions in Omicron hotspot London closely, with a breach of 400 expected to trigger further restrictions nationwide. The latest data shows 374 people were admitted to the capital on Boxing Day, up 73 per cent on the week before
UK Government statistics show how the number of Covid tests being conducted has reached 1.5m a day, with the number of swabs carried out having increased massively since Omicron first emerged
It’s Bank Hell-iday in fun-free Scotland and Wales
City centres in Scotland and Wales have been pictured desolate and lifeless amid the introduction of new Covid restrictions on hospitality – all while revellers let their hair down in England after Sajid Javid confirmed no new rules would be put in place before New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Nightclubs were closed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland under new restrictions on Monday, while the rule of six and social distancing have been reintroduced for pubs and restaurants.
It leaves England as the only part of the UK where party-goers will be able to celebrate New Year’s Eve without restrictions after Boris Johnson opted to heed the pleas of hospitality bosses and resist fresh Covid curbs.
First Ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford were also today accused of ‘jumping the gun’ and ‘devastating the hospitality industry’ by bringing in tougher restrictions.
And on the first day of the new rules on Bank Holiday Monday, traditionally busy streets in Cardiff, Swansea, Edinburgh and Glasgow were pictured arid and glum.
In England, conversely, alcohol-fuelled crowds in London and Leeds remained in the festive spirit – braving the wet weather on Bank Holiday Monday to make the most of looser hospitality restrictions.
On another day of coronavirus chaos:
- English regions bordering Scotland and Wales braced themselves for a New Year invasion after crackdowns on hospitality by Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford left England as the only country free to party;
- Britain was urged to cut its Covid quarantine period to just five days, bringing its isolation rules in line with the US;
- Boris Johnson’s decision to hold his nerve and leave England to go it alone by refusing to cancel New Year’s Eve was criticised by gloomy experts;
- Official figures reveal dozens of pregnant women and new mothers are fighting for their lives against Covid in intensive care units.
- Across the channel, France reported a record high of 179,807 new confirmed coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period on Tuesday, by far the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic.
Speaking to broadcasters about New Year celebrations on Tuesday afternoon, Care Minister Ms Keegan said: ‘We have always said ”act cautiously” since this new variant came among us.
‘It is highly infectious and many people will know people who have caught this over the Christmas period.
‘So do be cautious, take a Lateral Flow Test (LFT) before you go out. Go to well-ventilated areas – I have been to a couple of outdoor parties actually, people have moved things to outside.
‘So just be cautious, but do try to enjoy yourself as well – but cautiously.’
The UKHSA data today shows case levels in the UK have reached their highest ever daily total.
The figures could be artificially high because of a testing blitz following mass socialising on Christmas Day, but it is not possible to tell because the Government’s UK-wide testing data still only shows up to December 23.
Meanwhile, the NHS England figures show Boxing Day’s daily hospitalisations total was at its highest level since February 11, when 1,440 were recorded.
But they are still significantly lower than the peak of admissions during the depths of the pandemic last year, when new daily patients reached 3,967 on January 1.
However, the number of Covid-positive patients in England went up by more than 1,000 in a day, from 8,474 to 9,546 on December 28. The figure was up 38 per cent over the week.
Ministers are thought to be watching admissions in Omicron hotspot London closely, with a breach of 400 expected to trigger further restrictions nationwide.
The latest data shows 374 people were admitted to the capital on Boxing Day, up 73 per cent on the week before.
Mr Johnson, who is at his Chequers country retreat, left it to Health Secretary Sajid Javid to face the cameras to announce the decision not to extend restrictions yesterday, although he later Tweeted advice to Brits to exercise caution at the new year.
‘The health minister has taken advice and looked at the data. I think his judgment where we should go in the next few days is probably fine,’ Sir John told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘There are a lot of people who are aware that we are in the face of this large wave of disease. The behaviour of people in the UK, in England in particular, has been pretty responsible in terms of trying not to go out and spending a lot of time exposing yourself to the virus.’
He added: ‘The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago – intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely – that is now history in my view and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue.’
The PM’s decision last night not to follow the lead of the other home nations in bringing in harsher Covid restrictions ahead of the new year has also been welcomed by Tory MPs who have been at odds with the PM.
He faced a rebellion by more than 100 before Christmas as he brought in new mask-wearing rules and Covid checks for nightspots.
Tory Mark Francois told GB News: ‘It’s remarkable how a backbench rebellion of 101 MPs focuses minds, isn’t it? But let’s not be churlish, this is the right decision, well done Prime Minister.
‘We are asking people to use their common sense – we’re being conservatives. We’re trusting in the good sense of the British people.’
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data shows Omicron now makes up 92 per cent of all cases in England. Graph shows: The proportion of cases likely to be Omicron (purple) compared to other variants including Delta (light green) over time
Omicron cases surged most quickly in London, before other areas of the country started to catch up. Graph shows: The number of laboratory-confirmed Omicron cases in regions across England over time
Academics at the Sanger Institute, one of the country’s largest variant-tracking laboratories, pulled together data highlighting how England went from detecting its first case of the ultra-transmissible lineage towards the end of November to it becoming dominant in swathes of the country within a matter of weeks
Up to 40 per cent of patients hospitalised with the Omicron variant are unvaccinated, according to the UKHSA. The figure does not mean that the current vaccines don’t work, even though the majority of hospitalised patients were jabbed. Instead, it offers even more evidence of how effective jabs are — even in the face of Omicron. Britain has vaccinated the vast majority of eligible over-18s, meaning people who have been vaccinated make up a much bigger proportion of the population. Separate UKHSA data (taken from in November and shown in the graph) proving how well the vaccines work shows unvaccinated adults are up to eight times more likely to be admitted to hospital than people given two doses
The most up-to-date figures reveal there were 842 Covid patients in intensive care on ventilators – the lowest level in two months
Professor Sir John Bell (left), regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the Vaccines Taskforce, said the public had been ‘pretty responsible’ in its response to the spread of the Omicron variant. Gillian Keegan (right) said people should go out and have fun to see in 2022 but take steps to limit their chances of catching the virus
Mr Johnson, who is at his Chequers country retreat, left it to Health Secretary Sajid Javid to face the cameras to announce the decision, although he later tweeted advice to Brits to exercise caution at the new year
UK faces calls to slash Covid isolation to just FIVE days
Britain was today urged to cut its Covid quarantine period to just five days, bringing its isolation rules in line with the US.
American officials last night scrapped an order requiring the infected to self-isolate for 10 days. Instead, they can leave home at the half-way point, as long as they have no symptoms and can wear a mask around people for another five days.
Bosses at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) insisted the decision was ‘motivated by science’ and to keep ‘society functioning’.
Leading experts today called for UK to follow suit especially in the face of Omicron, which has wreaked havoc on businesses throughout the Christmas period by forcing hundreds of thousands to stay at home.
Union bosses have warned the ultra-transmissible variant’s rapid spread has left the NHS and other public sectors in a ‘perilous state’.
Ministers have already squeezed the isolation period to seven days, providing Covid sufferers test negative twice at the end of their week of quarantine.
But Sir John Bell, an immunologist who has advised the Government on Covid, said Britain could go even further and replicate the US by relying on lateral flow tests. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the swabs are ‘quite a good way of marking who is infectious and who isn’t’.
And Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert from the University of East Anglia, said eventually Covid-infected people need to be allowed to ‘go about their normal lives’ as they would with a cold.
Bassetlaw MP Brendan Clarke-Smith added: ‘It’s about trusting people to make their own decisions about their lives and to use their common sense.’
However other scientists signalled their disagreement with Sir John over the laissez faire rules.
University of Brighton virologist Dr Sarah Pitt called for ‘a few measures’ to curb the spread of Omicron.
The microbiology lecturer told LBC the ‘seriously infectious virus’ is ‘putting some people very seriously in hospital, and some people are dying’.
‘I know personally more people who’ve been off sick with Covid in the last month than the whole of the pandemic put together,’ she said.
‘So although there is a balance between the economy and health, they’re not mutually exclusive – it’s not one or the other.’
Nightclubs were closed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland under new rules yesterday, with social distancing and the rule of six reintroduced for pubs and restaurants.
New Covid curbs on hospitality from devolved governments have scuppered plans for December 31 and sparked fury from businesses.
In a further sign that the Omicron variant appears to result in less severe disease, there were 8,474 patients in hospital with Covid yesterday compared with 19,277 on the same day last year.
It represents a day-on-day increase of nearly 1,000 and is the highest since March 5. But health bosses say there have been no reports of large numbers of patients requiring ventilators like during last winter’s peak.
The most up-to-date figures reveal there were 842 Covid patients in intensive care on ventilators – the lowest level in two months.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the Government is keeping the level of Covid hospital admissions under ‘very close review’ after ministers decided there would be no new restrictions in England before the new year.
Mr Eustice acknowledged that infection rates from the new Omicron variant were rising but said there was evidence it was not resulting in the same level of hospital admissions as previous waves.
France reports record high new coronavirus cases in single day
France reported a record high of 179,807 new confirmed coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period on Tuesday, by far the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic.
The previous record of 104,611 was set on Saturday, after the 86,852 high of Nov. 11, 2020 was broken with two consecutive days of more than 90,000 new cases per day at the end of last week.
On Monday, the government announced new measures to curb infections, including limits on the size of big gatherings, a ban on eating and drinking in transport systems and the mandatory wearing of masks again outdoors.
‘There is early encouragement from what we know in South Africa that you have fewer hospitalisations and that the number of days that they stay in hospital if they do go into hospital is also lower than in previous variants,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘At the moment we don’t think that the evidence supports any more interventions beyond what we have done.
‘But obviously we have got to keep it under very close review, because if it is the case that we started to see a big increase in hospitalisations then we would need to act further.’
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said Covid will eventually be regarded as a cause of the common cold and will not warrant the reporting of daily case numbers.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘Covid is only one virus of a family of coronaviruses, and the other coronaviruses throw off new variants typically every year or so, and that’s almost certainly what’s going to happen with Covid – it will become effectively just another cause of the common cold.
‘We’re not going to be doing daily reporting on cases of the different causes of the common cold going forward, of which Covid is one.
‘So personally, I think it would be unlikely that we are going to do anything like that whilst we’re still coping with Omicron, but once we’re past Easter, perhaps, then maybe we should start to look at scaling back, depending on, of course, what the disease is at that time.’
Travel industry demands end of Covid tests for incoming tourists
Travel and tourism experts today called for prohibitive tests to enter the UK to be scrapped, branding them ‘rapidly out of date’ and with ‘no justification’.
Currently people have to take a COVID-19 test 2 days before travel to England and an often expensive PCR test on day 2 or before.
But these regulations were imposed in an attempt to try and restrict the Omicron coronavirus strain, a variant which is now running rampant throughout the country.
But Boris Johnson has imposed no Covid restrictions, despite cases per day of upwards of 100,000.
It has prompted baffled travel experts to question why transport tests designed to restrict it were still in place and damaging the industry.
Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy The PC Agency, told MailOnline: ‘The evidence is not there now for such restrictions to be in place coming into the UK.
‘The rules are lacking evidence, there is no justification for a pre-departure test to the UK anymore. No-one needs to monitor Omicron coming in – it’s already here.
‘The PM needs to remove the pre-departure test as a minimum and turn the day 2 into an easier lateral flow test.’
Covid case numbers – which were updated for the first time since Christmas Eve – reveal 98,515 people in England tested positive yesterday.
This is nearly four times higher than the 25,619 people who tested positive on the same day last year and is a considerable decrease on the 113,628 cases reported in England on Christmas Day.
It is also lower than the 103,558 cases reported on Boxing Day. The promising figures highlight the vaccine’s protective effects against severe illness, as well as the mounting evidence that Omicron is a milder strain.
A further 143 people in England died after testing positive for Covid yesterday – down 42 per cent on the 246 people who were reported to have died the same day last year.
And yesterday’s figure could be skewed by a recording lag, which saw no fatalities registered on Christmas Day and just three on Boxing Day.
Meanwhile data for London – which No10 has been watching closely – reveals there were 364 Covid hospital admissions across the capital on Christmas Day.
While this was a rise on the 278 hospitalisations reported on Christmas Eve, it is still lower than the 400 admissions per day thought to be the Government’s trigger point for imposing new restrictions.
Health bosses said that Covid admissions to hospitals were not rising ‘precipitately so’ but warned that it is still ‘far too early’ to dismiss concerns.
Chris Hopson, NHS Providers chief executive, said: ‘Trust leaders are watching their current hospital admissions data very closely.
‘Talking to chief executives this morning, the sense is that admissions are rising but not precipitately so. What’s particularly interesting is how many chief executives are talking about the number of asymptomatic patients being admitted to hospital for other reasons and then testing positive for Covid.
‘Trusts are not, at the moment, reporting large numbers of patients with Covid type respiratory problems needing critical care or massively increased use of oxygen, both of which we saw in January’s Delta variant peak.
‘We should therefore be cautious about over interpreting current Covid admission data.’ He added that trusts are ‘preparing for the worst and hoping for the best’.
Clampdown now could have been catastrophic
Commentary by Prof Philip Thomas
Common sense has prevailed, at least for now. Faced with a blizzard of dire predictions and scarifying statistics, Boris Johnson and the Cabinet have held their nerve.
No new Covid restrictions will be introduced before the New Year.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has sensibly urged people not to throw caution to the wind when enjoying parties on December 31 – but in England at least, parties are permitted.
That is immensely important. Another clampdown could have been catastrophic for society, the economy and for general mental health.
Empty tables at a bar in Concert Square on Boxing Day in Liverpool’s city centre. Downing Street is understood to be leaning towards new guidance urging people in England to be careful and limit contacts – rather than imposing new legally-binding restrictions
Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty (right) and Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance earlier this year
It would also have been based on a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics. When we focus on the worst case scenarios for the current wave, the situation might appear bleak.
Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London has warned of 10,000 hospital admissions a day. The reality is far from that – in fact, yesterday’s NHS figures show there were fewer than 10,000 Covid patients in hospital in the whole of England. The actual total was 8,474.
It is never safe to base policy decisions on worst case scenarios.
In statistical models, the most pessimistic forecasts will be an extremely poor predictor of reality. Because of the spread of probable outcomes, we can be 97 per cent confident that whatever happens will be better than the worst prediction. That is not wishful thinking. It’s mathematics.
Some gloom-mongers, including a number who sit on the Government’s Sage committee, believe it’s always safer to plan for the very worst.
Tighter coronavirus restrictions were introduced in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland today as the nation’s leaders try to halt the spread of the Omicron variant. Pictured: Shoppers take to Oxford Street for the Boxing Day sales
But that strategy can only work if the precautions are relatively painless. This is not the case with Covid restrictions, which have closed down society and the economy.
Our gross domestic product has still not recovered to where it was two years ago, before Covid struck. Without a strong economic rebound, more people are likely to be killed by the financial consequences of lockdown restrictions than ever died with Covid.
The risk assessment method I have been developing at the University of Bristol, dubbed Judgment-value, proves the economy has to improve continuously if we and our children are to live healthier and longer lives.
Already, the cost of earlier lockdowns is mounting. We are seeing a backlog of NHS treatments for life-threatening diseases, as well as increased domestic abuse and disruptions to education. We cannot afford to exacerbate these problems.
It is all too easy to focus on those bleak ‘worst case scenarios’ and ignore more upbeat news. Shortly before Christmas, the UK Health Security Agency revealed England was experiencing between 50 and 70 per cent fewer hospitalisations with Omicron than it had with Delta.
There was further good news in the weekend’s results released yesterday, with hospitalisations showing little increase. In London, admissions on Christmas Day were lower than two days earlier at 364, down from 390.
Some people might have been concerned to hear just before Christmas that the number of people with an active infection in England rose to over 1.5 million in mid-December.
But this was expected. Thanks to the number-crunching power of Bristol’s Predictor Corrector Coronavirus Filter (PCCF), that’s close to the figure I predicted in the Daily Mail.
The total number of active infections may well exceed three million at the height of the wave, according to the PCCF, and we may see the daily number admitted to hospital peaking at around 3,000 in England.
But that’s well below the 4,130 we saw at the peak in January – and daily deaths should stay well below what we saw in January too.
Philip Thomas is Visiting Academic Professor at the University of Bristol