Boris Johnson at Odds With Senior Medic on Tackling Omicron
Boris Johnson insisted there are no immediate plans to ask Britons to curb socializing and work from home -- even after a government adviser said doing so could help limit the spread of the omicron Covid variant.
The British government has tightened rules on face coverings, self-isolation and testing since the emergence of omicron cast doubt over the risk to public health if it was found to be able to evade current vaccines.
But after the head of the U.K. Health Security Agency, Jenny Harries, said Tuesday people should also avoid socializing when they “don’t particularly need to,” Johnson’s government declined to endorse her suggestion.
Asked if people should minimize socializing and cancel Christmas parties, Johnson told a press conference: “No. The guidance remains the same.” He also said working from home is unnecessary, and that another lockdown is “extremely unlikely” -- though he declined to rule it out completely.
The mixed messaging from officials is reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, when the government faced heavy criticism for the confusion over face coverings, social-distancing rules and work from home guidance.
On Tuesday, the U.K. Health Security Agency said it’s identified another 8 omicron cases in England, bringing the total to 13, with a further nine in Scotland. In responding to the new variant, the government has said it is taking a “proportionate” approach to buy time for scientists to investigate the new strain, while also considering the impact of tougher rules on the economy.
Relying on Boosters
Face coverings became mandatory again in shops and on public transport -- though not in hospitality settings -- from Tuesday, along with a requirement for people arriving from all countries to take a PCR test and isolate until they receive a negative result.
Johnson has stopped short of bringing in the government’s full “plan B” list of measures, which include mandatory vaccine certification for some crowded settings and advising people to work from home.
He is relying on an accelerated vaccine booster program to avoid more restrictions, after much of the country was in lockdown last Christmas. The government is expanding the program to include all adults, and is reducing the gap between second and third doses to three months from six.
The shots will be administered according to age, and ministers aim to offer everyone eligible a booster by the end of January.
Johnson said temporary vaccination centers will be “popping up like Christmas trees” and that 400 military personnel would help the effort.
The prime minister also faces pressure from lockdown-skeptic members of his ruling Conservative Party, who are urging the government not to overreact to the omicron variant.
Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new rules on Tuesday, but a number of Tories criticized the government for bringing in the measures before the vote.
“If we continue to react to these fears and uncertainties by taking the authoritarian course, without impact assessments, because they’re only temporary, you know, then we are embarked on that downward course,” Conservative MP Steve Baker said. “The public are not fools. We’re not here to govern idiots. I have faith in the British public. I have faith that they can choose for themselves to do the right thing.”
Another Tory MP, Desmond Swayne, lashed out at Harries’s advice for people to curb socializing, saying it would be “to the detriment of people’s wellbeing and an industry struggling to recover from earlier lockdowns.”
Meanwhile Night Time Industries Association Chief Executive Officer Michael Kill criticized what he called the government’s “poorly-conceived communications strategy,” saying it will “severely” hurt his industry.
“It is surreal and extremely frustrating to see health-care advisers publicly telling people not to socialize, giving unnecessary uncertainty to our customers and workforce,” he said in a statement.
During an interview with BBC radio earlier on Tuesday, Harries was pressed on whether people in England -- which falls under Johnson’s remit for health care purposes -- should be advised to work from home as the devolved administrations have said in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“If we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay,” she said.
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