Health and Science

Tighter Covid restrictions could reportedly be announced for England as omicron spreads

Key Points
  • The U.K. government could be poised to announce more Covid restrictions for England as soon as Wednesday, according to a report in the Financial Times.
  • The move comes amid concerns over the spread of the omicron variant.
  • Sources told the paper that the government had decided to implement its so-called Plan B of increased restrictions.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives an update on the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic during a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street on March 18, 2021 in London, England.
Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool | Getty Images

LONDON — The U.K. government could be poised to announced more Covid restrictions for England amid concerns over the spread of the omicron variant, according to a report in the Financial Times on Wednesday.

The paper, which cited three unnamed senior Whitehall officials, said the sources had told the newspaper that the government had decided to implement its so-called Plan B of increased restrictions, including vaccine passports for large venues and an order to work from home.

The new restrictions could be announced at a news conference as early as Wednesday with regulations laid before Parliament on Thursday, according to government insiders speaking to the paper.

CNBC has contacted Downing Street for comment but is yet to receive a response.

The move comes amid widespread concerns over the increasing number of Covid omicron cases in the U.K., where official data suggests that 1,000 people a day are being infected by the variant.

Experts have commented this week that it could be a matter of weeks, rather than months, before it usurps the globally dominant delta variant.

Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, an influential epidemiologist among a cohort of experts advising the British government on Covid, told The Times newspaper Tuesday that early data suggests the number of omicron cases are doubling every "three days or less."

Plan B

Despite a continuing surge of Covid cases in the U.K. (with 336,893 new cases reported in the last seven days) the government has been reluctant to trigger its Plan B and said it would only do so if cases threatened to severely impact the health-care service's ability to function.

The government said in November that if Plan B is enacted, it would use the Covid pass (which designates individuals' Covid vaccine status or a recent negative test, or recent recovery from Covid) to restrict access to certain public spaces, such as nightclubs and other crowded venues, to the fully vaccinated.

"Under Plan B, the Government expects to introduce mandatory vaccine certification in a limited number of settings, with specific characteristics. The Government hopes that it would not be necessary to mandate vaccine certification more widely than these settings, though this cannot be entirely ruled out," it said, adding that "if Plan B is implemented, it could be at short notice in response to concerning data."

Thanks to Covid vaccines, which reduce the risk of severe infection, hospitalization and death, admissions to hospitals in the U.K. remain far below previous peaks.

Still, there are widespread concerns over the omicron variant as more information emerges to allow health officials to build a more comprehensive picture of its risk profile.

Alleged Christmas party

Critics of the government are likely to see any introduction of more restrictive measures as a way to distract public attention from widespread news coverage of an alleged Christmas party that took place in Downing Street last year which breached Covid rules.

Downing Street denies that any party took place, but a video has been obtained by broadcaster ITV showing senior Downing Street staff joking about holding a Christmas party and how they might answer press questions about it.

The emergence of a video in which staff are joking about the Christmas party, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted never took place, could further undermine public confidence in the government and adherence to Covid restrictions.

Johnson was jeered as he entered the House of Commons (the lower house of Britain's Parliament) on Wednesday for the weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions (during which the prime minister answers questions from lawmakers).

Johnson kicked off the session by telling lawmakers: "I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No.10 [Downing Street] staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures ... I was also furious to see that clip and I apologize unreservedly for the offense it has caused." Nonetheless, Johnson continued that he had been "repeatedly assured" that "there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken."

He said there would be an investigation to establish the facts and that disciplinary action would be taken against the staff involved if the rules were found to be broken.

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said Johnson had been caught "red handed" by the video. He urged the prime minister to admit the party at Downing Street took place, saying he was "taking the public for fools."