Covid cases jumped 6 per cent today and breached 50,000 for the fourth time in a week, as Omicron‘s grip on the UK continues to tighten and Britain stares down the barrel of tighter restrictions.
Government figures show there were 51,342 positive tests in the last 24 hours, up 6.1 per cent on last Wednesday’s 48,374.
Deaths have fallen week-on-week however, with the number of lives lost to Covid falling by 5.8 per cent during the same time-frame to 161.
Hospitalisations rose by 3.3 per cent, with the latest figures showing there were 729 admissions as of December 4, the most recent day UK-wide figures are available for.
While only 568 cases of Omicron have been confirmed in the UK so far, the true toll will be much higher because only a fraction of cases are analysed.
The figures come as Boris Johnson tonight signed off on Plan B, declaring people should once again work from home where possible. In a gloomy Downing Street press conference, he said ministers would extend the use of masks and introduce Covid passports for nightclubs.
In a move that bounced No10 into activating its back-up plan, SAGE warned ministers Omicron hospitalisations may breach 1,000 a day in England by the end of the year without tougher restrictions to stem the spread of the super-mutant Covid variant.
There is growing pressure on the Government to tighten restrictions after the total number of British Omicron cases rose to 568 today, with the highly evolved variant now in every country in the UK and almost every region of England
What could Plan B entail?
No10 is expected to announce a suite of new measures to stem the spread of Omicron today.
The curbs that could be introduced are:
— Compulsory face masks extended to pubs and restaurants
— Vaccine passports for large events
— Advice to work from home where possible
— Isolation of all contacts of Covid cases
These are the measures that are already in place:
— Compulsory masks in shops and on public transport
— Pre-flight departure tests for all UK arrivals
— PCR test on or before Day 2 for vaccinated arrivals
— 10-day isolation for unvaccinated arrivals
— Day 2 and Day 8 PCR tests for unvaccinated arrivals
— Return of Red List and hotel quarantine for arrivals from countries on list
— Booster vaccine campaign expanded to all adults, dosing gap shortened to three months
Experts warn thousands of cases are flying under the radar because not all samples are analysed for variants and Omicron is estimated to be doubling every two or three days — much faster than when Delta exploded on the scene.
The latest seven-day average number of hospital admissions is currently about 760 and 680 in England. SAGE members had previously suggested that 1,200 daily admissions would be the trigger point for more restrictions with Delta.
Not a single one of the UK’s confirmed Omicron cases has been hospitalised with the virus but it takes several weeks to fall seriously unwell and there are early indications in South Africa that it might cause milder illness than past variants.
But even if the new strain is milder, experts warn that if it can infect significantly more people than Delta, it will cause bigger surges in hospital admissions than its predecessor.
In the SAGE minutes the group said: ‘With the speed of growth seen, decision makers will need to consider response measures urgently to reduce transmission if the aim is to reduce the likelihood of unsustainable pressure on the NHS.’
The scientists insisted that tightening restrictions will give the UK precious time to delay the wave and get more boosters into arms. They said they expect jabs to hold up against severe disease and death.
Earlier, Professor Neil Ferguson, a key SAGE member whose modelling prompted the initial lockdown last spring, today admitted that another full-blown shutdown could be on the cards to tackle Omicron.
He said light measures like WFH ‘wouldn’t stop it but it could slow it down’ and extend the doubling time to five or six days.
‘That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it actually is potentially a lot in terms of allowing us to characterise this virus better and boost population immunity,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Infections of the highly evolved variant are doubling every two or three days. The above graph shows how the number of daily cases of Omicron could breach the 100,000 barrier before New Year’s Day, if that pace continues
In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent
Pfizer’s booster vaccine CAN beat Omicron
The vaccine manufacturer argued three injections provide a ‘more robust’ defence against the variant, which has sown chaos since it was first identified in South Africa last month.
A third jab triggers a similar antibody response against Omicron as two doses against previous strains of Covid, according to preliminary laboratory tests. It also ‘strongly increases’ T cell levels, offering the immune system an extra boost to protect against severe disease.
But Pfizer also insisted that two doses should still be enough to slash rates of hospitalisations and deaths, in the event of fresh waves triggered by the super-mutant strain.
And millions of doses of a new version of its vaccine tailored to the mutant strain — which has already been developed — can be ready by March if the current crop of jabs do not provide enough protection against Omicron. Pfizer’s boss said they will know within weeks if it is needed and all of its production can be switched to the new vaccine.
It comes as two separate studies released today show that vaccines appear to work better than expected against Omicron, which is quickly spreading in Britain and has left No10 on the brink of resorting to its ‘Plan B’ to save the NHS from being overwhelmed this winter.
A South African research institute found people fully-vaccinated with Pfizer make up to 40-times fewer antibodies against Omicron compared to other variants. But the lead author of the research, the first of four laboratory-based studies released in the last 24 hours, insisted the results are ‘better than expected’.
Another study by Swedish virologists also found there is a drop in the body’s ability to neutralise Omicron after jabs. But the Karolinska Institute researchers insisted the decline was not seen in everyone, with one of the paper authors saying the fall was ‘lower than feared’.
Meanwhile, a World Health Organization official insisted the vaccines should still work against Omicron, admitting that the strain appears to be milder than its rivals, such as Beta and Delta.
Dr Michael Ryan, the agency’s emergencies director, argued the current jabs ‘have proved effective against all the variants so far’ in preventing severe disease. He added that ‘there’s no reason to expect’ vaccines would suddenly fail against Omicron.
Mr Johnson tonight called the tearful resignation of his spokeswoman Allegra Stratton ‘a sad day’ after she announced her departure in the wake of bombshell video showing her giggling about an ‘illegal’ Christmas party in No10.
The PM said Ms Stratton was ‘outstanding’ and a ‘fine colleague’, but revealed he hadn’t yet seen her dramatic resignation statement.
The former spokeswoman for the PM announced she had quit her £125,000 a year role alongside a ‘profound apology’ for appearing to ‘make light’ of Covid rules.
In emotional comments to journalists near her London home, Ms Stratton said: ‘My remarks seemed to make light of rules, rules that people were doing everything to obey. That was never my intention.
Conservative MPs have been turning on the premier, with demands for him to provide an ‘explanation’ and even warnings that misleading parliament on what happened will be a ‘resigning matter’.
Baroness Warsi, a former Cabinet minister turned critic, said ‘every minister, parliamentarian and staffer’ at the alleged party ‘must resign now’.
One government source told MailOnline the situation was an ‘absolute joke’. ‘A friend said to me ”you look like a bunch of c***s”. It was hard to argue.’
BBC Breakfast took the extraordinary step of empty-chairing Mr Javid this morning as vaccines minister Maggie Throup also pulled out of her planned round of regional television interviews.
On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, host Susanna Reid swiped that the government was ‘gaslighting’ by pretending there is not any need to answer questions.
The footage of Ms Stratton was filmed on December 22 last year – four days after the alleged ‘boozy’ party and when London was under strict Tier 3 coronavirus curbs.
The revelation follows a week of tortured denials from No 10 that there was a ‘party’, even though dozens of staff allegedly exchanged ‘secret Santa’ gifts and drank past midnight at an event said to have included party games.
One said of Mr Johnson’s leadership: ‘I’m tired of it. He has to go. Clean sweep. It’s unsustainable’. Another said: ‘It confirms my suspicion of the sheer arrogance and hypocrisy of those orchestrating lockdown measures.’
Former minister Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford, demanded an apology. ‘I am fuming! My constituents have every right to be angry,’ she told Kent Online.
‘Their memories of lost loved ones are traumatised knowing that they died alone, first and last Christmases passed by, and many spent what is usually a special day by themselves.
‘I am not even going to begin to justify or defend a party in Downing Street. We all deserve a fulsome explanation and apology and swiftly.’ Conservative Sir Roger Gale said today that the situation bore ‘all the hallmarks of another ‘Barnard Castle’ moment’ – a reference to the Prime Minister’s former aide driving 260 miles during strict lockdown conditions last year.
He said: ‘This is like something out of The Thick Of It. If you wrote it, people wouldn’t believe it. Boris Johnson has always been his own man and done his own thing in his own way. I think he has a certain amount of explaining to do. This is no laughing matter. I want PM to come to the dispatch box and say there either was a party or wasn’t. There has to be an explanation by lunchtime today’.
Professor Neil Ferguson warns a full lockdown might be needed to stop Omicron overwhelming NHS
The Government scientist, whose modelling bounced No10 into the original lockdown last spring, said the return of stay-at-home orders ‘certainly might be possible’ if the mutant strain threatens to overwhelm the NHS.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘There is a rationale, just epidemiologically, to try and slow this down, to buy us more time principally to get boosters into people’s arms because we do think people who are boosted will have the best level of protection possible, but also to buy us more time to really better characterise the threat.’
Asked outright if a lockdown could be reimposed, he said: ‘Clearly if the consensus is it’s highly likely that the NHS is overwhelmed then it will be for the Government to decide what to do about that but it’s a difficult situation to be in of course. It certainly might be possible at the current time.’
It is unclear how the British public would react to social restrictions over Christmas after fresh allegations surfaced this week that Boris Johnson held a rule-breaking lockdown party in Downing Street last December, when millions of Britons were unable to visit loved ones.
Even Ant and Dec got in on the act last night, mocking Boris Johnson over the Downing Street Christmas party on I’m a Celebrity 2021 and saying: ‘Evening Prime Minister… for now.’
Police are yet to launch a criminal investigation – but will be reviewing the footage before a decision is taken. It is understood that a senior officer looking at the matter will now consider the contents of the video in the coming days.
‘We are aware of footage obtained by ITV News relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at a Government building in December 2020’, a Met spokesman said. ‘It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations, however the footage will form part of our considerations’.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme said Mr Javid was scheduled to feature this morning, but cancelled after the footage emerged.
Presenter Nick Robinson said: ‘We were expecting to speak to the Health Secretary Sajid Javid this morning but we were told just a few minutes after that video emerged that no minister would be available to speak on the programme today.’ Mr Javid was also due on outlets such as BBC1, Sky News and Times Radio.
The damning clip, which was leaked to ITV News, shows Ms Stratton and aides joking about cheese and wine and suggesting the ‘fictional’ event was ‘not socially distanced’. Miss Stratton, who is still on the No 10 payroll earning £125,000 a year, was practising for planned TV media briefings, which were later axed.
At the time of the alleged event, on December 18, Christmas parties were outlawed – on pain of £10,000 fines – and many families were even barred from visiting dying loved ones. Mixing indoors with people from other households was banned in the capital.
No 10 was still insisting last night that there had been ‘no Christmas party’ and that coronavirus rules were followed at all times. But ministers were aghast at the crass video, with one privately describing it as ‘appalling’.
Insiders fear the release of the toxic footage could unleash a wave of public anger, similar to the fury over the trip to Barnard Castle by Dominic Cummings at the height of the first lockdown.
A Downing Street insider acknowledged the video was a ‘disaster’, adding: ‘No 10 aides laugh at their party as thousands cry for their dead.’
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisted ‘we do follow the rules on Covid’ as she was questioned about the alleged party at a Chatham House event.
She said: ‘As to alleged events in Number 10, I don’t know the detail of what happened.
‘I know that the Prime Minister’s spokesman answered those questions in detail yesterday and I am sure there will be further discussion of that issue.’
Boris Johnson (pictured leaving 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons today) is on the verge of bowing to mounting alarm about the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed by bringing in tougher restrictions, likely to include a blanket order to work from home where possible, more mask-wearing and Covid passports
BBC Breakfast today decided to ’empty chair’ Sajid Javid for pulling out of national interviews in the wake of the Downing Street party video