New rules on working from home, face masks and vaccine passports are coming in over Christmas – but Sajid Javid refused to rule out the possibility they could go further
Top Tory Sajid Javid has refused to rule out more Covid restrictions in January – as he warned UK Omicron cases could reach a million by New Year’s Eve.
The Health Secretary said “I hope not” to introduce even more rules to crack down on the surge of the more transmissible variant.
But he was unable to give a guarantee.
It comes after he smashed his own previous review date for restrictions and brought in two sets of rules less than a fortnight apart.
People in England are urged to work from home from Monday, must wear face masks in cinemas and theatres from Friday, and must produce the NHS Covid pass at big events from next Wednesday.
Face masks were already required in shops and on public transport and there were new rules on inbound travellers to the UK.
All the measures will now be reviewed on January 5, meaning they will be in place over Christmas.
But scientists have raised doubts over what will happen after the New Year.
SAGE member Prof Neil Ferguson said yesterday, before the launch of Plan B: “At the moment it’s very difficult to rule out anything we really haven’t got a good enough handle on the threat.
“If the consensus is it’s highly likely that the NHS is going to be overwhelmed then it will be for the Government to decide what it wants to do about that but it’s a difficult situation to be in of course.
“It (a lockdown) certainly might be possible at the current time.”
SAGE papers released last night warned the number of hospitalisations from Omicron may reach “1,000 per day or higher” in England by January 31. It is currently just over 700.
SAGE added: “The peak is highly likely to be higher than 1,000 to 2,000 Omicron hospital admissions per day without intervention.”
Prof Paul Hunter, epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, said he was “pessimistic” the strategy would work to curb infections.
Advice to the government has warned cases of the new strain are doubling in just 2.5 to three days – up from seven days for the Delta variant.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the change “has made the virus an even more formidable foe” and although there are only 568 confirmed Omicron cases in the UK, “we know the actual number of infections will be significantly higher.”
Mr Javid said the UK Health Security Agency estimates the number of infections “are approximately 20 times” those currently known – so closer to 10,000.
Asked by Sky News if England was looking at more restrictions in January, Mr Javid replied: “No – I hope not.”
He added: “I think the action we’ve taken now is very decisive, I think it’s going to make a big difference it’s not something anyone would do lightly.
“It will have a real impact on people, be difficult for many people. But I hope people would understand it’s better to take this action now than see the rate spread and increase.”
The Health Secretary said modelling indicated there could be one million UK Omicron cases by the turn of the new year if restrictions were not re-introduced.
Mr Javid said the deployment of Plan B was to “buy time” to assess the new coronavirus variant and to “build our protective defences”.
NHS Providers chief Chris Hopson – who represents hospital bosses – told ITV ’s Peston: “We’re now looking at months – three, four, five months – where we’re under really, really relentless pressure right the way across the piece.
“And that’s as you were saying with about 6,000 hospitalised Covid patients.
“Clearly if we see those numbers significantly increase, one problem is that it’s potentially going to be in early to mid January which is the point at which the NHS is always under greatest pressure.
“And we know also we’ve got massive, massive workforce pressures at the moment, in terms of we’ve got a very very tired workforce.”