Post-Christmas measures could include ban on mixing indoors except for work, with outdoor service only at pubs and restaurants
Tougher measures could be introduced to stem the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, with reports that plans are being drawn up for a two-week “circuit breaker” after Christmas.
Ministers are due “imminently” to present draft regulations that would mean England returning to restrictions last seen in April, according to the Times.
The measures could ban meeting other people indoors except for work purposes for two weeks after Christmas, with pubs and restaurants limited for the fortnight to outdoor service only.
However, the paper reported that Boris Johnson has not approved the plans, and on Friday he insisted he was not “closing things down”.
Meanwhile, leaked minutes seen by the BBC of a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said that without government intervention beyond the recently announced plan B measures, hospital admissions in England could reach “at least” 3,000 a day.
The minutes of the Sage meeting held on Thursday 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.”
They continued that introducing measures equivalent to those in place after step two or step one of the roadmap in England could “substantially reduce the peak in hospital admissions and infections compared with plan B alone”, the BBC reports.
Step one and two of the roadmap for easing lockdown banned indoor hospitality and indoor social mixing between households.
“The timing of such measures is crucial,” the Sage minutes said, adding that delaying until 2022 would “greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings”.
The Financial Times reported that Johnson was presented with a number of options on Friday under a so-called plan C, ranging from “mild guidance to nudge people, right through to lockdown”.
Quoting allies of the prime minister, it said that while Johnson still wanted to go down the guidance route, he needed to be realistic about the threat of Omicron.
Johnson has called a Cobra meeting this weekend with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in response to the rising cases of the variant.
Victor Adebowale, the chairman of the NHS Confederation, backed a circuit breaker to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant.
He told Times Radio: “I would support the circuit breaker. My members would support the circuit breaker. We’ve been calling for plan B for some time now and we’re glad that it was voted through. I think the government has to be prepared to recall parliament if further interventions are needed.”
He described the leaked modelling by Sage as “very worrying”.
He said: “The fact of the matter is we should be taking the precautionary principle. We should be protecting our NHS and our public services. We have no economy without health.”
However, Prof Stephen Reicher, a leading government adviser, said a post-Christmas circuit breaker could be too late.
Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising the government on behavioural science and a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, told Times Radio: “The only way really, or at least the most effective way, we can have an immediate effect is to decrease the number of contacts we have. In many ways, the most effective way of diminishing contact is to have a circuit breaker.
“Now, you could have it after Christmas. The problem is after Christmas it’s probably too late; it’s probably by then we will have had a huge surge of infections with all the impact upon society.”
Reicher, who was speaking to Times Radio in a personal capacity, said the time to act was now.
A further 90,418 cases of Covid-19 in the UK were reported on Saturday, and 125 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test, according to the government’s latest daily figures.
The official data showed that 900 Covid patients had been admitted to hospital in the latest 24-hour period.
Saturday’s number of daily cases marked a slight drop compared with Friday, when 93,045 daily cases were recorded – the highest daily total since the beginning of the pandemic.
The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 in London, which has seen some of the biggest rises in cases in the last seven days, increased to 1,534, up 28.6% on the previous week.
Across the UK, 7,611 people were in hospital with the virus on Friday, a rise of 163 patients (2%) on the previous week.