Johnson Holds Off on Extra Virus Measures Amid Omicron Surge
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson held off introducing stricter U.K. coronavirus rules to clamp down on a surging new wave of the virus, but left open the prospect they’ll be needed soon.
Speaking after a meeting of his cabinet that stretched for more than 2 hours amid what he described himself as “finely-balanced arguments” either way, Johnson said his top team agreed to keep the data on the outbreak “under constant review.”
“We will not exclude going further if we have to do things to protect the public,” Johnson said in a pooled television interview. For now, “there are still some things that we need to be clearer about before we decide to go further.”
With the government’s scientific advisers urging for new rules sooner rather than later to stave off a surge in hospitalizations, Johnson’s comments leave the U.K. in limbo just 5 days before Christmas as daily Covid cases remain near record levels due to the fast-spreading omicron variant. Earlier on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown.
The prime minister’s reluctance to bringing in further measures comes against a backdrop of widespread opposition within his ruling Conservative Party to further curbs on people’s freedoms. They rebelled in record numbers last week against lighter-touch measures, which were only approved with the backing of the opposition Labour Party.
Johnson said there is still uncertainty about the severity of omicron and its expected impact on hospitalizations and deaths. He said he would stick with the so-called Plan B measures for now, which include guidance to work from home, mandatory face-mask wearing in many settings and Covid certification to enter certain venues.
Earlier, the Daily Mirror newspaper reported that the government may introduce new restrictions from Dec. 27. The restrictions being considered are “Step Two” of the country’s earlier coronavirus response, the paper reported, which included pubs and restaurants only being able to serve customers outdoors, a ban on indoor mixing between households and a maximum of six people or two households being allowed to interact outdoors.
“We’re looking at all kinds of things to keep omicron under control and we will rule nothing out,” Johnson said. “Please exercise caution as you go about your lives.”
Johnson also left open the prospect of extra financial support for companies as many people voluntarily stop going out and spending money to reduce the chance of catching the virus.
Asked whether economic help is coming, Johnson said: “of course it’s also important that we look after the hospitality sector, theaters and other parts of our incredible entertainment industry which will suffer and are suffering.”
He pointed to measures already in place including grants, lower sales tax and business rates relief, and said “we will keep the economic side of this under constant review as well.”
That will do little to allay growing concerns among businesses that are already suffering from a drop-off in demand. On Monday, the industry lobby group UKHospitality said December is set to be a “disaster” for the industry, with more than half of venues reporting sales down more than 40% last weekend.
“Trading levels are now so low that without government support, many businesses will not survive into the new year and jobs will be lost,” UKHospitality Chief Executive Officer Kate Nicholls said in a statement. “Cancellations have annihilated cash reserves.”
Businesses are calling for increased grant funding, and extensions beyond March for the business rates holiday and reduced sales tax rate that are already in place.
Johnson said he understood “how tough” the situation is for businesses. “Omicron has simply exploded so fast that we have seen people naturally deciding to make sure that they protect themselves and they avoid spreading the disease.”
Until this month, U.K. daily cases had never exceeded 70,000. For three of the past four days, they’ve exceeded 90,000, and at the weekend, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies released documents saying that England alone is “almost certain” to be suffering hundreds of thousands of omicron variant infections a day -- when those who haven’t been tested are included.
Without further restrictions from the government, new hospitalizations could reach a peak of at least 3,000 a day, SAGE said, adding that to avoid that pressure, “more stringent measures would need to be implemented very soon.”
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