But with the prime minister facing the prospect of relying on Labour’s pledged backing amid a sizeable Tory revolt over his plan B measures, which include Covid passports for certain venues and home-working guidance, a report in the Telegraph claims that “plan C” measures could herald the first major rebellion within his Cabinet.
As health experts warn the UK’s current trajectory could see one million cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant by the end of December, government officials are reported to have been drawing up plans for tighter measures to curb the virus, dubbed “plan C”.
While there has been no official confirmation of specific plans, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson has said that while the government does not currently intend to do so, it will take more drastic steps to slow the virus’s spread “if necessary”.
So far the possible measures reported include the use of Covid passports for smaller venues, such as pubs, and the reintroduction of a mandatory 10-day isolation period for contacts of those infected with the virus, as Scotland moved to do with regards to household contacts on Friday.
However, on Sunday, the Department of Health and Social Care announced a move to ask all double-vaccinated people to take daily lateral flow tests for a week if they come into contact with the virus, axing a requirement for omicron cases to automatically self-isolate for 10 days.
A previously suggested measure to impose a three-visitor limit in care homes in England had already been announced by the DHSC on Friday, and comes into force on Wednesday, a day after the new testing rule.
The Daily Mail had also said that plan C could include a return to “checking in” with the NHS Covid app again to go to a pub or restaurant, mandatory face masks in all indoor spaces, and having to show a Covid passport at even more venues.
And The Mirror reported that under “plan D” measures, hospitality businesses would only be allowed to serve outdoors, with the potential of a complete closure of pubs and restaurants if infections keep rising, reminiscent of the original lockdown.
While it is little surprise that Whitehall officials are drawing up contingency plans, with reports emerging on the possibility of a “plan C” as far back as October, the talk of such rules in the past week has come as ministers were shown new data on the omicron variant.
Early research by the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) has indicated that two doses of current vaccines are less effective against omicron than the delta variant, but that booster jabs offer between 70 and 75 per cent protection against symptomatic disease.
Vaccines are expected to offer significantly greater protection against severe illness and death, according to their early findings, which the agency said should be treated with caution.
While noting that there is still a “a lot of uncertainty” about the new variant, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who are advising the government warned that omicron could cause more hospitalisations than seen last winter without another lockdown.
With their modelling suggesting between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths by April, Dr Rosanna Barnard who co-led the study said: “In our most optimistic scenario, the impact of omicron in the early part of 2022 would be reduced with mild control measures such as working from home.
“However, our most pessimistic scenario suggests that we may have to endure more stringent restrictions to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed. Mask-wearing, social distancing and booster jabs are vital, but may not be enough.”
Dr Barnard added that it was “crucial for decision makers to consider the wider societal impact of these measures, not just the epidemiology”.
Shortly after hosting a Cobra meeting on Friday with the leaders of each of the devolved nations, the minister for intergovernmental relations Michael Gove said they had been presented with some “very challenging information” about the new variant.
“Action is absolutely required, and as new data comes in, we will consider what action we do require to take in the face of that data,” Mr Gove said, adding: “We absolutely do need to keep everything under review but I think the approach that we’re taking is proportionate.”