Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson has rejected calls for an immediate tightening of coronavirus restrictions in the face of soaring infections with the Omicron variant. But, speaking after cabinet heard the latest evidence about the variant's spread, he kept open the possibility of introducing new measures after Christmas.
“We’ve had a long discussion in cabinet for a couple of hours now, a very good discussion, at which we agreed that the situation is extremely difficult and the arguments either way are very, very finely balanced,” he said.
“And in view of the balance of risks and uncertainties, particularly around the infection hospitalisation rate of Omicron – how many people does Omicron put into hospital of the infected – and some other uncertainties to do with severity and booster effectiveness and so on, we agreed that we should keep the data from now on under constant review, keep following it hour by hour.
“And unfortunately I must say to people we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public . . . and we won’t hesitate to take that action.”
Mr Johnson last week introduced a series of restrictions called Plan B which mandate face coverings in most public indoor spaces except bars and restaurants, vaccine passports for entry to nightclubs and large unseated indoor venues, and guidance to work from home if possible. About 100 Conservative MPs voted against some of the measures, and former Brexit minister David Frost resigned because he could not support them.
A further 91,743 coronavirus cases were recorded in Britain on Monday, with 44 newly reported deaths. The government's scientific advisers have warned that without tougher restrictions the Omicron variant's spread could see 3,000 patients a day needing a hospital bed as the National Health Service (NHS) suffers staff shortages because of infections among its workers.
Some cabinet ministers are reported to have resisted introducing new measures, which could include a ban on indoor mixing of households and the closure of indoor hospitality, until more is known about the link between Omicron infections and hospitalisations. Former chief whip Mark Harper, one of the leaders of the Conservative backbench rebels, said the government should make public the data on which its decisions were based.
“Not telling the public what’s going on is unacceptable. These are big decisions affecting everyone’s lives, people’s livelihoods and mental wellbeing across the country. We all deserve to see the data ministers see. Show us your workings. We can do so much better than this,” he said.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the prime minister was too focused on internal tensions within the Conservative party to take decisive action to deal with the pandemic.
“Boris Johnson is too weak to stand up to his own backbenchers, many of whom have no plan beyond ‘let the virus rip’. Today, while businesses across the country wonder if they can continue to trade, and families make frantic calls about whether they will see each other this Christmas, true to form the prime minister has put his party before the public,” he said.
“Rather than set out a clear plan for the country he has chosen to protect himself from his own MPs by simply not saying anything. Boris Johnson is unfit to lead.”