The UK reported a record 122,000 coronavirus cases on Friday, leaving Boris Johnson awaiting new data on people in hospital with the Omicron variant before deciding if new post-Christmas Covid restrictions will be needed in England.
The prime minister and senior members of his cabinet will meet after Christmas to consider whether additional measures — most likely affecting the hospitality industry — should be introduced before the new year to tackle the rapid spread of Omicron and to safeguard the NHS.
But government insiders said Johnson will try to avoid an emergency recall of parliament next week to approve new restrictions if possible, instead issuing guidance on social mixing.
Government data on Friday showed 122,186 people in the UK tested positive for Covid-19 in the latest 24 hour period, setting a new daily record.
Preliminary findings issued by the UK Health Security Agency on Thursday, showing that people infected with Omicron are up to 70 per cent less likely to require an overnight stay in hospital than those with Delta, appeared to bolster the case against new Covid restrictions.
Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA, said the data on hospitalisation offered “a glimmer of Christmas hope”, but added the work was based on “very small numbers” of people.
In London, the UK area worst hit by Omicron, the latest available data showed Covid-related daily hospital admissions rose to 386 on Wednesday, compared to 201 a week earlier — and the highest level since early February. In total there were 2,260 Covid-positive patients in hospital in London.
Johnson’s allies said the prime minister was awaiting “live data” over the Christmas period to establish whether the surge in Omicron cases was putting pressure on hospitals.
“We always expected there would be an increase in hospital cases over the Christmas weekend,” said one. “If the data says we should take tough decisions, that’s what we will do. Nothing is ruled out.”
Documents released by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Christmas Eve showed modellers at Warwick University had considered the effects of new restrictions being introduced on December 28 or January 1.
Under one scenario so-called step 2 restrictions were modelled to last for three months until March 28, with other cut-off dates after a short “circuit breaker” on January 15 or January 28. Government officials said the modelling had not been circulated to ministers.
Step 2 refers to the government’s 2021 Covid road map out of lockdown, and it includes limits on household mixing and restricts pubs and restaurants to outside service only.
The modelling found that full implementation of step 2 measures from December 28 would cut hospitalisations by 16 per cent if curbs were kept in place until January 15. They would fall by 37 per cent if in place until March 28.
Johnson is expected to convene his senior ministers and scientific advisers on Monday or Tuesday next week to assess the latest data — leaving little time to pass any new Covid restrictions into law before the new year.
The prime minister has promised MPs a vote on any new regulations, suggesting a recall of parliament would have to happen on Thursday or Friday for new rules to take effect before New Year’s eve.
Such a move could provoke another cabinet split on the issue, after ministers including chancellor Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss argued this month there should be conclusive data before any shuttering of the economy. It could also provoke another major rebellion by Conservative MPs.
One government insider said: “The timetable for recalling parliament is very tight and the politics are very difficult. The alternative is to issue strong guidance to people to take care.”
Harries, who earlier this month described Omicron as probably the most “significant threat” since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, told the BBC: “[I]t definitely isn’t yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat.”
Data from the Office for National Statistics on Friday estimated 1.7m people in the UK had Covid in the week ending December 19.
This equated to about one in 35 people in England, the highest rate recorded in the country since the ONS began conducting its survey in May last year.