Boris Johnson has held off on imposing new restrictions in England before New Year’s Eve despite the continuing rise in the number of coronavirus cases over Christmas weekend.
The UK prime minister decided not to act after a briefing on the latest infection data from England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.
A pause in collection of the information from around the UK over the holiday weekend meant the government published incomplete data on Monday for the three days for England only. But combined with initial data from Scotland, they suggested new infections levels on Christmas Day were close to the record of 122,186 infections UK-wide reported on Friday.
In England alone 113,628 new infections were confirmed on Christmas Day, with a further 103,558 on December 26 and 98,515 in the latest 24-hour period. In Scotland, provisional figures for the three days were 8,252, 11,030 and 10,562, respectively.
Confirming the prime minister’s decision, Sajid Javid, health secretary, urged people in England to “remain cautious” in the run-up to New Year, to celebrate outside where possible and to take lateral flow tests before visiting family and friends.
“Of course we look at the data on a daily basis — that hasn’t changed over the Christmas period — but there will be no further measures before the new year,” Javid said.
“Celebrate outside if you can, have some ventilation indoors if you can, please remain cautious. And when we get into the new year, of course, we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures — but nothing more until then at least.” Javid said 90 per cent of all cases reported were now the new Omicron variant.
The move by Johnson to hold off on tightening restrictions puts England at odds with the rest of the UK, whose devolved administrations imposed tougher social distancing rules on Sunday to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
In Scotland, three households can socialise, with one-metre social distancing recommended in venues such as bars, restaurants, and gyms. In Wales and Northern Ireland, a maximum of six people can meet in pubs, bars and restaurants, while nightclubs have been closed. Northern Ireland has also recommended socialising should be limited to three households.
Any move by the prime minister to impose further restriction in England is likely to provoke a political backlash from ministers and MPs in Johnson’s party who are sceptical of further measures.
Johnson has promised to recall parliament before acting and was already cutting it tight to do so ahead of New Year’s Eve, given the two public holidays in England on Monday and Tuesday. A recall of MPs requires 48 hours’ notice.
Problems arose on Monday when people in England were unable to book PCR tests for several hours. The UK Health Security Agency said the issue was “temporary” and service had been resumed on Monday afternoon.