Boris Johnson has announced new Covid restrictions to tackle the rapid spread of Omicron in what commentators have described as a “tumultuous” week for the prime minister.
The Tory leader is under growing pressure to address reports that parties were held in Downing Street last Christmas when the country was in lockdown. So the timing of yesterday’s coronavirus Plan B announcement has triggered widespread scepticism and anger.
At a press conference last night, Johnson announced that:
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- from Friday, masks will be compulsory in most public indoor venues, with the exception of places where people eat, drink or exercise
- from Monday, people will be advised to work from home where possible
- from Wednesday, subject to parliamentary approval, anyone entering nightclubs or settings with large crowds will need to demonstrate that they have had two vaccines or show proof of a negative lateral flow test
- everyone is advised to take a lateral flow test before entering “a high-risk setting involving people you wouldn’t normally come into contact with” or “when visiting a vulnerable person”
- and daily lateral flow tests for contacts of confirmed Omicron cases will replace the current ten-day self-isolation period.
“For weeks yet it will seem as if this has all been a fuss about nothing”, with Britain “still in the middle of a very big - but manageable - wave of Delta”, said The Times. But as Omicron fuels an exponential rise in Covid, the fear is that the new variant of the virus will “burst through” in January and “cases will once again rise so high that the NHS will be in danger”.
Although only 568 cases had been confirmed in the UK so far, “the true number is certain to be much higher”, said Johnson yesterday. “Most worryingly, there is evidence that the doubling time of Omicron could currently be between two and three days.”
Early data suggests that Omicron might be milder than previous strains and that vaccines will still provide some protection. But experts are warning that the new variant may nevertheless pose significant dangers if it is more transmissible than Delta. “In a phrase that has now become a go-to mantra of epidemiologists, a small proportion of a big number can still be a big number,” said The Times. “If enough people get infected then the risk remains of hospitals being swamped.”
A “meaningful update” on Covid measures from the PM was not expected until around 18 December, noted the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg. Scientists have said it was “the right thing to act early” as Omicron spreads at “lightning speed”, but “cynics” would say the timing is a reflection of Johnson’s desire to distract from his “nightmare” political row, she told Newscast.
The Financial Times is among those arguing that Plan B is “part of the prime minister’s escape plan” from the anger about Christmas parties in Downing Street. The newspaper suggested that the PM is betting on a “dead cat” strategy, “the tactic of putting the equivalent of an inanimate feline on the table to change the subject”.
Johnson denied that charge last night, but Tories and officials are reportedly sceptical. A long-standing Tory told the FT that “something has snapped. Trust evaporated after the Paterson saga but now I think we’re into real danger territory.”
The Telegraph’s Allister Heath agreed with that assessment, but cast doubt on the strategy to restrict people’s freedoms just as Downing Street is accused of breaking its own rules. The “Partygate” video showing No. 10 aides “joking about wine and cheese was an almost perfect encapsulation of everything the public hates about the political class”, he wrote, “and will be devastating for the government”.
Rather than distract, reimposing restrictions will “infuriate all sides of the debate”, Heath said.
Allegra Stratton, who featured in the explosive video, resigned last night from her role as a government adviser. Beth Rigby at Sky News wonders how many more “heads might have to roll” to save Johnson’s.
The PM “didn't hesitate” in throwing his colleagues “under the bus” yesterday, claiming he was “furious” about the video but doubling down on his denial of a party, Rigby wrote.
In what The Guardian called a “tumultuous week” for Johnson, the Conservative Party was also fined £17,800 for “failing to accurately report a donation” that paid for the refurbishment of his flat. On a more positive note for the PM, his wife, Carrie, gave birth to a baby girl this morning.
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