However, the PM also reiterated on Tuesday that he cannot rule out further curbs in the coming days, leaving open the possibility of new controls on pubs and nightclubs by New Year’s Eve.
The emergence of the Omicron variant is causing concern around the world, not least because it is thought to be highly transmissible and because the 32 mutations of its spike protein suggest it might be able to resist current vaccines.
The UK has recorded more than 74,000 confirmed cases of the strain so far and at least 18 deaths, prompting fresh fears that more severe social restrictions could soon be imposed on the British public.
But prime minister Boris Johnson has declared that no further restrictions will be introduced before Christmas, explaining that “that people can go ahead with their plans”, a decision that allows him to avoid a repeat of his notorious address of 19 December 2020, when he reluctantly imposed tough new measures at the last minute and dashed the festive hopes of millions.
He was speaking on the same day as chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £1bn in support for the hospitality industry after customers cancelled reservations in droves in response to the latest twist in the pandemic and his counterpart in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, announced fresh restrictions on sporting events and cancelled Edinburgh’s annual Hogmanay street party, having already asked Scots to keep household mixing to a minimum.
‘Rule nothing out’
In his video message from Downing Street on Tuesday evening, Mr Johnson said: “We can’t rule out any further measures after Christmas – and we’re going to keep a constant eye on the data, and we’ll do whatever it takes to protect public health.”
The announcement came a day after he told reporters that the government was still deciding whether or not to impose further additional measures.
He said ministers were monitoring the data “hour by hour” and that the arguments for taking further action were “very, very finely balanced”.
“Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS,” he added.
“We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.”
The prime minister is understood to have been waiting for more data on the variant to become available before he made a decision, a stance that saw him accused of “dithering” by scientists and his political opponents.
By contrast, London mayor Sadiq Khan was decisive when he declared a major incident over the extent of the outbreak in the capital while NHS England announced a return to its highest level of emergency preparedness, level four national incident, meaning that the health service’s response will be coordinated as a national effort, rather than led by individual trusts.
Overall, the UK added another 106,122 infections in 24 hours on Wednesday, a record high for this pandemic. That compares to about 27,000 cases this time last year.
Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance is said to have led the call for fresh measures to drive down infection rates and ease the pressure on the NHS, but these have so far been resisted by senior Cabinet ministers loathe to further jeopardise the economy and constrain individual freedom without more data to justify it.
Sir Patrick’s fellow advisers have been equally outspoken, with Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warning that Omicron is “coming at us like an express train” and insisting that the government must give the public a “good, clear message” about how “serious the crisis is”.
The prospect of introducing a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown after Christmas has been mooted – and appears to be broadly popular with the public – with plans made available to ministers for consideration and apparently including a ban on meeting others indoors except for work purposes and limiting pubs and restaurants to outdoor service only.
It is clear the PM hopes the takeup of booster vaccines, along with the partial “Plan B” restrictions recently introduced, will be enough to see off the threat.
As part of those measures, Britons are currently again being ordered to wear face masks in shops, cinemas, theatres and places of worship and on public transport, to work from home order where possible.
The government has further revised its approach to vaccine booster jabs, planning to make them available to all over-18s by the end of December and halving the amount of time between second and third injections from six months to three, all in the hope of staving off the feared “tidal wave” of infections we are already beginning to see.
Some form of “Plan C” – a circuit-breaker, or tighter restrictions – could be necessary if Omicron starts to disrupt the NHS over the festive season, but there is little political appetite for any kind of fourth national lockdown.
But Sage advisers remain unambiguous in calling for stricter curbs, with the influential Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London openly entertaining the possibility for several weeks.
The bigger picture
Even before Omicron began to cast its sinister shadow across the globe, many Britons were already glancing anxiously towards the continent as Austria and the Netherlands reintroduced lockdowns in response to spiking cases of Covid-19.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) had said it was “very worried” about the spread in Europe and warned 700,000 more deaths could be recorded by March unless urgent action is taken, bringing the total to 2.2 million since the pandemic began.
Omicron variant shows just how ‘perilous’ Covid situation is, WHO says
Prior to the latest worrying developments sparked by Omicon, Mr Johnson’s government had been deeply reluctant to reimpose restrictions at all, despite consistently high case numbers.
While the vaccines have consistently kept death rates low since the spring, infection levels have remained consistently high, typically hovering around the 40,000-per-day mark but in recent days have been more than double that.
Mr Johnson may also be concerned that further restrictons might lead to social disorder, having seen anti-lockdown protests – some of them violent – erupt in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy and Croatia.
Londoners were certainly unhappy about the initial return of the mask mandate, accusing the PM of hypocrisy for declining to wear one himself at several public engagements.
However, in other quarters, there appeared to be a clear appetite for new restrictions even before Omicron, at least according to the polls.
A recent survey of 900 managers and 1,200 employees carried out by Hack Future Lab found 53 per cent would welcome a “festive lockdown” for the sake of their own well-being after struggling to come to terms with the return to ordinary working conditions, often finding themselves forced to take on extra tasks to cover for absent colleagues.
Another poll by Savanta ComRes revealed 45 per cent of adults would be in favour of a selective lockdown targeting only those who had declined to get their Covid jabs and therefore could pose an ongoing risk to others.
But, until Omicron threw a fresh spanner into the works, there was a credible case for believing that the UK was in such a strong position that it could avoid the worst of the outbreak marauding across Europe.
Although Britain’s infection rate has remained high for months, it has also been highly stable until recently, lingering at a seven-day average of around 600 daily cases per million people, whereas Austria and the Netherlands have suddenly spiked to 1,500 and 1,250 respectively from well below that starting point since the beginning of October.
Part of the reason for this is that the UK was hit by the more infectious Alpha and Delta variants of the coronavirus sooner and was therefore able to tackle them ahead of its European neighbours and unlock earlier.