Boris says NO more lockdowns but Plan B stays until end of the month
Back to normal by February? Boris hints Plan B Covid curbs will be gone within WEEKS as cases rise just 6% in a week fuelling hopes Omicron wave is already slowing – despite fears worst is yet to come for hospitals
- Boris Johnson has made statement to MPs on how he plans to ‘ride out this Omicron wave’ without more curbs
- PM said the government will not ‘shut down our country again’ and hinted Plan B curbs will go at end of month
- Plan to limit PCR tests to those with symptoms rather than asymptomatic to ease the pressure on the system
- The PM has snubbed mounting calls to cut isolation from seven days to five days to keep UK industry running
- Rubbish bins and recycling containers across the country are overflowing due to suspended collections
- NHS trusts have been declaring critical incidents with staffing absence the biggest challenge to services
Boris Johnson tonight all-but ruled out another lockdown and held out the prospect of a return ‘closer to normality’ within weeks amid hopes the Omicron wave is already slowing down.
As the UK recorded another 194,747 cases – up 6.4 per cent on a week ago – the PM cautioned that the growth is ‘the fastest we have ever known’ and older, more vulnerable people are now being affected.
However, he said bluntly that the government ‘does not believe we need to shut down our country again’. Instead Cabinet has agreed to stick to the existing ‘balanced and proportionate’ Plan B restrictions in England that are ‘taking the edge off’ the Omicron wave.
The obligation to work from home where possible, as well as wear masks in many settings and use Covid passes at large events and nightclubs will be reviewed again before they expire on January 26 – but Mr Johnson hinted strongly that they will not be renewed.
The premier was congratulated by senior Tories including Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May for holding his nerve despite pressure to clamp down before Christmas. In another boost, Nicola Sturgeon has U-turned by following England and cutting the self-isolation period in Scotland from 10 days to seven.
Challenged by another Conservative former minister, Steve Baker, in the House, Mr Johnson said he hoped that once Omicron ‘blows through’ the country ‘life will return to something much, much closer to normality’ and the current restrictions will ‘not be necessary’.
But Mr Johnson has also disappointed many by batting away calls for the self-isolation period to be trimmed immediately to five days to help fill gaps in the workforce – with more than a million people currently under house arrest.
While the rate of rise in cases was lower today, it was revealed that infection rates are still rising in vulnerable over-60s in Omicron-hotspot London. However, experts claimed that the trend should reverse within a week or two, as separate data showed hospitalisation rates in the capital are still falling.
Meanwhile, a further 334 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19. The figure included a backlog of hospital deaths reported by NHS England covering January 1-4.
Mr Johnson told MPs: ‘In response to the latest data, the Cabinet agreed this morning that we should stick with Plan B for another three weeks, with a further review before the regulations expire on 26 January.
‘People in England should carry on working from home whenever they can, wear face coverings on public transport and in most indoor public places, and take a test before going to high risk venues or meeting the elderly or vulnerable.
‘All of these measures are helping to take the edge off the Omicron wave, slow the spread of infection, manage the immediate pressures on our NHS and buy time for the boosters to take effect.’
The PM said he knew some MPs would ask whether the country should be ‘moving towards a full lockdown’.
‘But lockdowns are not cost free. They impose a devastating toll on our physical and mental wellbeing, on our businesses, jobs and livelihoods, and, worst of all, on the life chances of our children,’ he went on.
‘So this government does not believe we need to shut down our country again. Instead we are taking a balanced approach, using the protection of the boosters and the Plan B measures to reduce the spread of the virus, while acting to strengthen our NHS, protect critical national services and keep supply chains open.’
On another rollercoaster day in the Covid crisis:
- An estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending December 31, up from 2.3 million in the week to December 23 and the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020;
- Mr Johnson is axing the Covid travel testing scheme brought in to fight Omicron and asymptomatic people who test positive on lateral flow no longer need a follow-up PCR, in a bid to ration testing;
- Nicola Sturgeon has finally cut the self-isolation period in Scotland from 10 days to seven after a backlash from business;
- Downing Street has again rejected the idea of cutting the self-isolation period warning it would risk ‘significantly’ increasing infections.
Making a statement to the Commons, the PM gave a stern warning about the threat from Omicron saying growth in cases was ‘the fastest we have ever known’ – and there was a ‘rapid’ rise among older more vulnerable people
Starmer misses PMQs after testing positive for Covid AGAIN
Keir Starmer has tested positive for coronavirus again and had to miss today’s Commons battles with Boris Johnson.
A Labour spokesman revealed the leader has contracted the virus, with deputy Angela Rayner filling in.
Sir Keir is not thought to have any symptoms but the infection was picked up as part of his regular testing routine.
It is the latest setback for Sir Keir, who was forced to miss the Budget on October 27 after testing positive that day – just ten weeks ago.
The Omicron strain can evade previous immunity from infection and vaccination.
Sir Keir has also had to isolate four other times during the pandemic.
Business chiefs have begged Mr Johnson to cut self-isolation as around 1.3million people languish under house arrest and rail services and bin collections grind to a halt.
The PM is facing mounting pressure to trim the quarantine period again from seven days to five after he gathered his Cabinet ministers to sign off on sticking to ‘Plan B’ restrictions.
Testing rules are being loosened in an effort to reduce the pressure on the system, with people who are positive on lateral flows spared having to do a confirmatory PCR.
Meanwhile, travel regulations are being overhauled, axing the requirement for tests before arriving in the UK.
In the Commons, Mr Baker asked: ‘He will know as I know that the public are now yearning to know when we are going to get back to the old normal. Investors need to know, the wider public need to know and every business person in the country needs to know when the Sword of Damocles won’t be hanging over them with further restrictions.’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘The plan is the one that we have in place. It is to get on with Plan B, and there will be a review point as he knows, that expires as he knows on the 26th of this month, the Plan B measures. By then we hope to have greatly increased the already extraordinarily high number of people in this country who have not only been vaccinated, but who have been boosted.’
He added: ‘As Omicron blows through and it is is very much my hope and belief that it will, I do believe we will get back to something much closer to normality.
‘That doesn’t meant there won’t be further challenges but I think life will return to something much much closer to normality. It won’t be necessary to have the restrictions that we currently have in place. Business, investors, will have all the confidence that they need, but to be frank, you are already seeing a huge investments in this country because of the approach that we have taken.’
Another leading Conservative lockdown sceptic, Mark Harper, asked the premier when he will set out a plan ‘to live with this virus, like normal, forever’.
‘We cannot respond to every new variant in the way we have to this one. We have got to have a plan to live with this virus, like normal, forever. When is he going to set that plan out in this House? So that we all know where we stand,’ Mr Harper said.
Mr Johnson reiterated the ‘measures we have in place expire on January 26’.
‘Whatever the situation may be then and I am confident that it will be much better, whatever the situation may be we will continue with the fundamental, the tools that we have, that is vaccination, therapeutics and testing but it is important that Omicron seems to provide some sort of immunity already against Delta,’ he said.
Mrs May commended the PM for ‘resisting calls from the Labour Party and others for more restrictions before Christmas’ and ‘for the changes that he has announced today’.
The Conservative MP said: ‘We will see new variants appear in future and the likelihood is that they will continue to be less serious. It is not in the national interest to partially or wholly shut down sectors of our economy every time we see a new variant.’
Downing Street said afterwards that MPs will get a vote on extending Plan B measures ahead of their expiry on January 26 if the Government deems they need to continue.
The PM’s official spokesman said: ‘We would ensure that any measures, should there be any requirement to extend them, that Parliament would have its say in the normal way.’
PM axes travel testing rules as asymptomatic people are told not to get PCRs
Boris Johnson today axed the Covid travel testing scheme brought in to fight Omicron and asymptomatic people who test positive on lateral flow no longer need a follow-up PCR, in a bid to ration testing.
The Prime Minister told MPs in the Commons today that fully vaccinated passengers entering the UK will not need to take pre-departure tests from 4am on Friday.
Mr Johnson said the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease.
Day 2 follow-up PCRs for UK arrivals are also being scrapped and replaced by lateral flows — saving people up to £60 per test — as the country faces unprecedent demand for testing.
If they test positive on the Day 2 lateral flow, however, they will have to take a PCR swab and self-isolate for up to 10 days if they are indeed positive.
The moves — which were welcomed by the struggling travel industry — come after it was revealed confirmatory PCRs for asymptomatic cases who test positive on lateral flow will also be scrapped next week.
Under the change, people who receive a positive result on a lateral flow will be required to self-isolate immediately for seven days, without PCR confirmation.
The UK Health Security Agency said the ‘vast majority’ of people with a positive lateral flow result can be confident they have the virus because case rates are so high. It estimates the number ‘false positives’ are as low as one in 3,000.
However, with just under 1.5million lateral flows being conducted across the UK every day, there are fears this could still lead to thousands of people who don’t have Covid needlessly having to isolate.
Pressed if that is a vote in advance, he said: ‘Yes we will, on any regulations, you could expect, should it be required.’
Tory MP Steve Brine pressed Mr Johnson on a ‘long-term plan for living with Covid in 2022’, as he suggested the current measures are not ‘sustainable’.
The MP for Winchester told the House of Commons: ‘The Prime Minister deserves real credit I think for his recent decisions in respect of Covid. He has followed the evidence but he has also taken I think the wider view of our society and our economy which has to be right.
‘In my opinion England is not out of step with Scotland and Wales, they are out of step with us. Can I ask my right honourable friend to also, though, take the long view because it is increasingly clear we are a long way from learning to live with Covid but we also have an NHS on a permanent war footing and that’s not sustainable so what is the long-term plan for living with Covid in 2022 and could that include any changes to mandatory isolation, test and trace as for instance we see different isolation dates in the US and Germany to here in the UK?’
Mr Johnson said the Government will continue to ‘keep isolation timings under review’ as it does not want to ‘release people back into society so soon’.
He added: ‘As I said in my earlier answers, I do think we have a good chance of getting through this difficult wave and getting back to something like normality as fast as possible. It is important that Omicron seems to provide some sort of immunity for instance against Delta, that may be a positive augury for the future.’
Earlier, Richard Walker, managing director of the Iceland supermarket chain, warned that although it is coping so far the absentee chart is now ‘almost vertical’ – with levels more than double the peak of the ‘Pingdemic’ last year.
‘I think it is fair to say that business is under strain as never before. This new variant seems to be a lot more contagious and that is having a big impact,’ he told Sky News.
‘My call on government would be firstly to prioritise lateral flow tests for key workers including food retail front line shop workers, but also to revisit the onerous isolation rules.
‘Seven days is a long time for people who are triple jabbed when the symptoms are for the vast majority of people not more than a common cold or mild flu.’
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, also suggested he would support the move as long as it is science-led.
‘If the science says it is possible for people to go back to work earlier, then of course NHS leaders will want that to be possible,’ Mr Taylor said.
But Downing Street said reducing the seven-day isolation period further would risk increasing the number of infectious people spreading coronavirus.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘The clear advice we have at the moment is reducing it further would risk increasing significantly the chance of people returning to work and further people spreading Omicron and therefore leading to even more people isolating.
‘As it stands, the evidence we have and the advice we have, is if you were to cut it down beyond seven days there is a significant chance they’re still infectious to others at that point and so leaving isolation would represent a public health risk.’
Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Tory chairman Oliver Dowden were among those at the Cabinet meeting this morning
Even NHS bosses back cutting self-isolation period to FIVE days as staffing crisis sees hospitals CANCEL routine operations
An NHS leader today revealed he would support slashing Covid self-isolation to five days amid an escalating staffing crisis that has engulfed hospitals and led some to cancel routine operations.
Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation — an organisation which represents trusts, said two more days should be shaved off the period as long as it was backed up by the science.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the situation was ‘desperate’ and any way of getting staff back to work was a ‘good thing’. But he said it would be ‘completely counterproductive’ to have infectious staff return to wards because it would exacerbate the spread of Omicron.
Last month ministers cut the self-isolation period to seven days, providing someone tested negative using a lateral flow on days six and seven. But pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to follow the US, which has squeezed quarantine to only five days for anyone without symptoms.
Business leaders today begged the Prime Minister to cut self-isolation, warning they were ‘under strain as never before’ and saying ‘seven days is a long time’ for people who are tripled-jabbed.
One in ten NHS employees are currently thought to be off sick or self-isolating, and Mr Johnson yesterday revealed plans are being drawn up to call in the Army if the crisis continues to worsen.
One ambulance trust began asking patients with life-threatening heart attacks and strokes to get a lift to hospital because it did not have enough paramedics.
Meanwhile, around a dozen hospital trusts have declared ‘critical incidents’ in recent days, signalling that they may struggle to deliver vital care to patients in the coming weeks because so many medics are off isolating.
And last night it emerged that 17 hospitals scattered across Greater Manchester have had to start pausing non-urgent surgeries. Up to 15 per cent of staff are off sick with the virus in the worst-hit hospitals.
At the same time, the number of Covid-infected patients being hospitalised is rising.
Around 1.3million Britons are currently thought to be languishing under house arrest, as the NHS, rail services and bin collections come under severe strain.
Health minister Gillian Keegan today admitted that the Government knew this was to be one of the most ‘pressurised winters’ yet. But she praised doctors and nurses for doing an ‘amazing job’, despite the spiralling pressures.
An estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending December 31, up from 2.3 million in the week to December 23 and the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
In England around one in 15 people in private households had Covid-19, according to ONS estimates – a level rising to one in 10 in London.
Government figures also showed a total of 17,276 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of January 4, up 58 per cent week-on-week – although far below the peak of almost 40,000 in January 2021.
Mr Johnson assembled Cabinet this morning to sign off on keeping the Plan B curbs in place until the end of the month.
No10 said the PM told ministers that the ‘next few weeks would be very challenging, particularly for the NHS where the number of people going into hospital because of Omicron will increase’.
‘The Prime Minister said the UK’s balanced approach, together with new evidence that Omicron is less severe than Delta, meant it was right to maintain the Plan B measures, with a further review before the regulations expire on January 26,’ the statement added.
‘The Prime Minister said the Government would continue to give the NHS all the support it needs to further manage the pressure it is under.
‘Cabinet agreed this approach and put on record its thanks and appreciation for the incredible efforts of NHS staff who are once again rising to the challenge of the global pandemic.’
The NHS has been hard hit by absences and rising hospitalisations, with Mr Johnson declaring at a Downing Street press conference last night that it is on a ‘war footing’ and a slew of trusts declaring serious incidents.
The changes in testing procedures are aimed at freeing up laboratory capacity for PCR tests, with the requirement for confirmatory tests suspended in asymptomatic people until the current high levels of infections subside.
The change is being introduced in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, Scotland and Wales tomorrow and in England from January 11.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said while levels of Covid-19 are high, the ‘vast majority’ of people with positive LFD results can be confident they have the virus.
People who have Covid-19 symptoms should still get a PCR test, the UKHSA said.
UKHSA chief executive Dame Jenny Harries said: ‘While cases of Covid continue to rise, this tried and tested approach means that LFDs can be used confidently to indicate Covid-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation.’
She said it remained important that people with symptoms self-isolate immediately and order a PCR test.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory panel, backed the move, saying a confirmatory PCR ‘not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere’.
But he said there were downsides because it would give researchers ‘slightly less information’ on the different variants in circulation because PCR swabs can undergo sequencing to determine which strain of coronavirus is present.
Exemptions to the new rules include people eligible for the £500 test and trace support payment, who will still require a confirmatory PCR to access the help.
PCRs will also be required for people participating in research and surveillance programmes and those at risk of becoming seriously ill, who have been identified as potentially eligible for new treatments.
Ministers also approved changes to the travel regime for England, with the requirement for pre-departure tests scrapped from 4am on Friday.
Mr Johnson also said the requirement to self-isolate on arrival until receipt of a negative PCR test on arrival was being scrapped, returning instead to the system in place in October last year, where travellers need to take a lateral flow test no later than the end of day two after arriving in England, with a PCR if they are positive.
The Omicron-driven surge in coronavirus cases and the knock-on effect of staff absences is already causing major problems in public services.
The Fire Brigades Union said that almost a third of London’s fire engines had been out of action during the last week, while almost 10 per cent of operational firefighters in the capital had either tested positive or were self-isolating.
Downing Street said more than 20 NHS trusts had declared a ‘critical incident’ although the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said they were not a ‘good indicator’ of the performance of the health service.
The North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) is still asking patients suffering from suspected strokes or heart attacks to get relatives to drive them to hospital following pressures on staff due to coronavirus and new year demand.
NEAS medical director Dr Matthew Beattie said: ‘Where it is safe, we will continue to ask patients to make their own way to hospital, however we would never ask anyone to drive themselves to hospital with a life-threatening illness.’
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cut the self-isolation period to seven days, as long as people have two negative lateral flow tests, broadly in line with the measures in place in England.
But restrictions on large gatherings and hospitality and leisure businesses will remain until at least January 17 in Scotland, she added.
Hawkish ministers have hailed Mr Johnson’s resolve in refusing to bow to calls for more restrictions before Christmas.
One Cabinet minister told MailOnline the public would give him credit for ‘bravery’. ‘I think the PM took the right decision. It was the brave decision. He was right about Freedom Day and now this.’
Pointing to a poll suggesting the Tories recovering ground over the past fortnight, the minister said: ‘The public like people to take brave decisions. I think they are giving him credit for Christmas.’
But there is increasing pressure for action to ease pressure on workforces. Craig Beaumont of the Federation of Small Businesses said: ‘Five-day isolation would help tackle some of the staff absences that we are seeing now really climb.’
Asked in a round of interviews this morning about the number of NHS trusts declaring critical incidents, health minister Gillian Keegan told BBC Breakfast: ‘Right now, they are under extreme pressure with the Omicron variant, with the number of positive cases and the increase in hospitalisations, and at this point in time when they always have extreme pressure.
‘We knew that and we actually knew that going into this period – that’s why we’ve put an extra £5.4 billion of investment to try and get extra staff, get some extra capacity to be able to put virtual wards in place, extra beds and extra capacity with the Nightingales, etc, all of which we anticipated, that this was going to be really difficult.
‘We’ve had two years of a pandemic, there is a build-up of people who haven’t come forward who need electives – there is a backlog we need to deal with – and then you have got the unknown of Covid – we now know we have Omicron – and also flu was a big unknown as well, how much flu we would have this year.
‘We always knew that this was going to be one of the most pressurised winters and they are doing an absolutely amazing job.
‘Part of one of the procedures we have with our NHS contingency and resilience plans is actually to declare this critical state, and then they will work with NHS regional colleagues and the local resilience forums to make sure that mutual aid is provided, or whatever support is required, so it is part of the escalation process.
‘These are tried and tested plans, we have these plans in place every winter.’
Ms Keegan conceded that ‘about one million’ people are currently in isolation because of coronavirus.
Speaking to Sky News, she said: ‘We don’t actually collect that data on a daily basis but it is obvious if you look at how many people tested positive yesterday – it was about 215,000 – that they will all be self-isolating obviously from the previous days.
‘So, it is about one million probably who are self-isolating right now.’
Asked why the UK Government did not have the exact data, Ms Keegan replied: ‘We get the tested positive … figures, so you can add those up over the days, but what we don’t know is how many people after day six and day seven have tested negative and are free to leave isolation.
‘So, it is around about a million people though.’
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