Will the Omicron variant trigger a lockdown before Christmas?

Boris Johnson faces ‘crunch 48 hours’ to decide next move as Tories threaten revolt

A Christmas wreath on the door of number 10 Downing Street
(Image credit: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Sajid Javid has refused to rule out a “circuit breaker” banning household mixing to prevent the Omicron variant’s rapid spread.

Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, the health secretary acknowledged that data on the new Covid strain was incomplete but said: “If we wait until the data is perfect, it may be too late.”

Boris Johnson, at the “most vulnerable point of his premiership”, is once again facing a momentous decision “that will shape the lives of many and potentially dictate the future smooth running of the NHS”, said Rob Powell at Sky News.

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The Sage argument

Nearly 920 people were admitted to hospital with Covid on 14 December, the latest date recorded on the government's Coronavirus Dashboard. Scientific advisers have warned that this could reach 3,000 a day without further restrictions. Leaked minutes from a meeting on Thursday of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), seen by the BBC, said: “If the aim is to reduce the levels of infection in the population and prevent hospitalisations reaching these levels, more stringent measures would need to be implemented very soon.”

The resistance

According to The Times, ten ministers – comprising a third of the cabinet – are resisting stricter measures and “have cast doubt on the accuracy of the modelling, given the limited information available”. This is said to include Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, while Javid and Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove are said to back further restrictions.

“Hobbled by a thumping loss in the North Shropshire by-election and dogged by scandals that seem unwilling to shift, the prime minister is hardly in a position to drive through politically unpalatable changes,” said Powell at Sky News. Johnson is facing a “depressingly familiar” decision: act early without a full picture of data or risk taking action too late.

The options

The PM has been presented with three options by civil servants ranging in levels of intervention, the lowest of which would see families asked to limit indoor contacts, reported The Telegraph. Option two would “mandate curbs on household mixing, the return of social distancing and an 8pm curfew on pubs and restaurants”, said the paper. “Option three is the return to full lockdown.”

After the Brexit Minister David Frost stepped down over the weekend, in part because of Plan B Covid measures, The Telegraph said one other cabinet minister is apparently willing to follow him out the door if lockdown is reimposed.

The timing

Johnson has repeatedly assured the public that the government will not “cancel” Christmas, but yesterday Javid said there were “no guarantees” when it comes to the pandemic. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab echoed this point and said evidence was being reviewed on an hour-by-hour and day-by-day basis. He added that the booster roll-out made tougher restrictions “much less likely” but it “depends on the severity of Omicron”.

Johnson faces a “race against time” if he does choose to tighten curbs before 25 December, said the Daily Mail. With Parliament now in recess, it will take at least 24 hours to recall MPs to vote on new measures.

Tory MPs have warned that any attempts to toughen rules before Christmas will “provoke letters seeking to oust Mr Johnson as party leader”, added the paper – meaning he now faces a “crunch 48 hours” of decision making.

A long Cabinet meeting to discuss restrictions took place this afternoon, but Johnson has not announced any further measures.

He said he would be following the data “hour by hour” and the “arguments either way are very, very finely balanced”. The government “will rule nothing out”, said the prime minister, but “some things need to be clearer before we decide to go further”.

Steven Swinford, political editor for The Times, tweeted: “Ministers don't think the data is there, despite warnings from scientists.” Johnson is unlikely to impose further Covid restrictions before Christmas, added Swinford, but 28 December has been “pencilled in” by officials as a starting point for new curbs, possibly a two-week circuit breaker.

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