No guarantees on new Covid restrictions – ministeron December 19, 2021 at 1:33 pm

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The health secretary refuses to rule out the possibility of new rules to slow the spread of Omicron.

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The health secretary has refused to rule out further Covid restrictions for England, as the Omicron variant spreads around the country.

A further 10,000 Omicron cases were confirmed in the UK yesterday and a major incident was declared in London, where cases are highest.

Asked about possible new rules to slow the spread, Sajid Javid said there were “no guarantees in this pandemic”.

And he described warnings from scientific advisers as “sobering”.

When it was suggested to him he was not ruling out a circuit-breaker – a short, sharp lockdown – or new restrictions before Christmas, Mr Javid told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “There are no guarantees in this pandemic, I don’t think.

“At this point we just have to keep everything under review.”

Daily cases chart

A further 90,418 daily Covid cases were reported across the UK on Saturday, after days of record highs.

And leaked notes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergency (Sage) suggest that, without intervention beyond current Plan B rules in England, hospital admissions could reach 3,000 a day.

On those notes, Mr Javid said: “It’s a very sobering analysis. We take it very seriously.”

However, he added: “We do have to challenge data and underlying assumptions, I think that is appropriate, and take into account a broader set of facts.”

Current Plan B rules for England include Covid passes for certain events, face masks in more places and people being urged to work from home if they can.

Other nations of the UK have similar rules – and Scotland has gone further by asking people to limit social contact to three households at a time in the run-up to Christmas.

Wales has also ordered nightclubs to close from 27 December.

Covid hospital admissions chart

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan told the BBC it was “inevitable” new coronavirus measures would be brought in for England.

“I think if we don’t bring in new restrictions sooner rather than later, you’re going to see even more positive cases and potentially public services like the NHS on the verge of collapse, if not collapsing,” he said.

“I think we should be able to celebrate Christmas safely. But I think sooner rather than later we’re going to look at social distancing, we’re going to have to look at household mixing.

“If we don’t, the number of cases is only going one way.”

Booster doses chart

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Javid said ministers were monitoring the data and discussing it with scientists “almost on an hourly basis”.

He confirmed that if new measures were to be proposed, Parliament would be recalled to approve them.

The health secretary’s comments come exactly a year after Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed Christmas restrictions on almost 18 million people across London and parts of England, in the face of the spread of the Alpha variant, which was first identified in Kent.

But Mr Javid said current factors, including vaccinations and antiviral medication, meant “the situation today in terms of our defences is very different”.

More than 800,000 booster doses were reported for the second consecutive day on Saturday, with 817,625 third jabs.

It means more than 27 million people in the UK have now had their third or booster dose.

Saturday’s data – which included the second-highest number of cases since mass testing began last year – also saw another 125 deaths recorded within 28 days of a positive test, down slightly on a week ago.

The UK Health Security Agency said that, so far, seven people with Omicron have died in England.

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Ministers received a briefing on the latest Covid data on Saturday afternoon and a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee was due to be held this weekend.

While the devolved nations consider the possibility of further measures, a number of European countries are taking tough action – including limiting travel to and from the UK.

Both Germany and France have now banned arrivals from Britain – though there are exceptions for some groups.

And in the Netherlands, a strict lockdown has been announced, set to last until 14 January.

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Analysis box by Nick Triggle, health correspondent

Introducing restrictions buys time, but it does not solve the problem.

The risk is you just delay the inevitable because you get a rebound in infections once they are lifted.

So the question that has to be asked is what will be done with the time that a short “circuit-breaker” would provide if it was introduced.

It would certainly allow more boosters to be done. But given more than 80% of the most vulnerable have been boosted the gains from that are nowhere near what they were for last winter’s lockdown when the vaccine programme was in its infancy.

If admissions were to rise as quickly as some of the most pessimistic modelling suggests restrictions could stop the NHS being overwhelmed by flattening the peak.

This perhaps remains the strongest argument in favour of a circuit breaker given the uncertainty for the moment over how much serious illness will be caused by this Omicron wave.

And all of that, of course, needs to be weighed against the costs to society, the economy and wider mental health.

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Brexit minister Lord Frost, meanwhile, has resigned from the UK government over “concerns about the current direction of travel”.

In a letter to Mr Johnson, the peer, who led Brexit negotiations, said he hoped the PM would “not be tempted” by “coercive measures” to tackle Covid.

Asked about the resignation, Mr Javid said Lord Frost was an “outstanding public servant”, telling the BBC that while he disagreed with his remarks, the minister had “resigned out of principle… and we have to respect that”.

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