U.K. on Edge Heading Into Christmas Overshadowed by Omicron
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson has given Britons the Christmas he has long promised -- some light-touch pandemic restrictions but with no limits on family gatherings. The big question is over what comes next.
When the U.K. prime minister ruled out tighter restrictions in the coming days, he also urged Britons to be cautious and warned tougher curbs may yet be needed after Dec. 25 if an omicron-fueled wave of Covid-19 infections threatens to overwhelm the National Health Service.
The numbers are compelling: until this month, the daily coronavirus caseload had never exceeded 70,000. It’s now been greater than 90,000 in 4 of the past 5 days. Yet that hasn’t -- so far -- led to a significant rise in hospitalizations, meaning there’s uncertainty over the severity of the omicron strain and whether people are still in the phase between infection and serious illness.
Politico reported Wednesday that the U.K. Health Security Agency is set to publish data before Christmas showing omicron is milder than earlier strains -- but not enough to prevent large numbers needing hospital treatment. An official familiar with the matter said no such data have been presented to ministers.
All of that means it’s unknown whether Johnson will move to tighten rules after the festive break. Complicating matters, he’s promised to recall Parliament from its current break if there are any new measures to vote on. That’s a process that typically takes about 48 hours, and U.K. newspapers are filled with speculation that any recall would be for Dec. 28.
Other developments on Wednesday include:
- The U.K. Health Security Agency reduced the requirement for vaccinated people testing positive for coronavirus to self-isolate to seven days from 10, subject to testing negative on days 6 and 7
- Wales announced new curbs starting Dec. 26, including limiting gatherings to six people in hospitality and cinemas, table service only in pubs and restaurants, and capacity limits on large events
- U.K. signed contracts to buy 2.5 million courses of Pfizer Inc.’s Paxlovid antiviral treatment, and 1.75 million courses of Merck & Co.’s Molnupiravir treatment
- The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended offering vaccination to children aged 5-11 who are in a clinical risk group, or who live with someone who is immuno-suppressed
- Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair told Times Radio he agreed with Johnson’s decision not to tighten rules before Christmas, while also calling it a “gamble”
The signs are Johnson is reluctant to make what would be a politically difficult decision to curb the freedoms of Britons again. Last week, 101 Tory MPs opposed lighter-touch Covid measures in a vote in Parliament that was only passed because of support from the opposition Labour Party.
The prime minister would likely face a similar -- or even bigger -- rebellion if he were to try to pass the sort of measures being suggested by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, including a ban on indoor mixing of different households, limits on the number of people who can meet outdoors, and the closing of indoor hospitality.
That leaves Johnson squeezed between his mutinous MPs and his scientific advisers, who warned last week that more stringent measures were needed “very soon” to avoid daily Covid hospitalizations rising into the thousands.
What happens in London, which has been particularly hard hit by omicron cases, may be key to what happens next. While hospitalizations in the city remain well below the peak last winter so far, they are rising steadily. They’ve more than doubled since Nov. 27, when the U.K. first reported cases of the new strain.
“If you’re going to introduce restrictions, then of course the sooner you introduce it the more effective any of those restrictions are going to be,” SAGE member Mike Tildesley told Sky News on Wednesday. “We’re not there yet in the data to really be able to say confidently the relative severity of omicron.”
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