What could Plan C restrictions for England look like?

Stricter rules for pubs and restaurants and requiring the NHS Covid Pass at more venues among possible further measures that could be implemented if omicron spread worsens

Grace Almond,Andy Gregory
Wednesday 15 December 2021 12:18
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UK PM announces new virus measures amid Omicron fears

As health experts warn the UK’s current trajectory could result in one million cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant by the end of December, government officials are reported to have been drawing up plans for tighter measures to curb the virus, dubbed “Plan C”.

While there has been no official confirmation of specific plans, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson has said that while the government does not currently intend to do so, it will take more drastic steps to slow the virus’s spread “if necessary”.

The prime minister’s “Plan B” measures were granted the approval of the House of Commons on Tuesday 14 December as MPs voted in favour of bringing back mandatory mask-wearing and working from home orders and introducing the NHS Covid Pass, a proof of vaccination requirement now needed to secure entry to crowded venues.

The measures passed thanks to support from Labour and not without a significant Tory revolt in opposition to the so-called vaccination passports.

So far, the possible measures that might be included in a Plan C - should the omicron situation worsen over Christmas - include the use of the Covid passports for smaller venues, such as pubs and restaurants, and the reintroduction of a mandatory 10-day isolation period for contacts of those infected with the virus, as Scotland moved to do with regards to household contacts on Friday.

However, on Sunday, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced a move to ask all double-vaccinated people to take daily lateral flow tests for a week if they come into contact with the virus, axing a requirement for omicron cases to automatically self-isolate for 10 days.

A previously suggested measure to impose a three-visitor limit in care homes in England had already been announced by the DHSC on Friday and came into force on Wednesday, a day after the new testing rule.

The Daily Mail had also reported that Plan C could include a return to “checking in” with the NHS Test-and-Trace app on arrival at pubs and restaurants and mandatory face masks in all indoor spaces.

And The Mirror has reported that under “Plan D” measures, hospitality businesses would only be allowed to serve customers outdoors, with the potential for the complete closure of pubs and restaurants if infections keep rising, reminiscent of the first lockdown of March 2020.

While it is little surprise that Whitehall officials are drawing up contingency plans - with reports first emerging of the possibility of a Plan C as far back as October - the talk of such steps has ramped up in the last week in response to new data on the omicron variant.

Early research by the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) has indicated that two doses of current vaccines are less effective against omicron than the delta variant but that booster jabs offer between 70 and 75 per cent protection against symptomatic disease.

Vaccines are expected to offer significantly greater protection against severe illness and death, according to their early findings, which the agency said should be treated with caution.

While noting that there is still a “a lot of uncertainty” about the new variant, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who are advising the government warned that omicron could cause more hospitalisations than seen last winter without another lockdown.

With their modelling suggesting between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths by April, Dr Rosanna Barnard, who co-led the study, said: “In our most optimistic scenario, the impact of omicron in the early part of 2022 would be reduced with mild control measures such as working from home.

“However, our most pessimistic scenario suggests that we may have to endure more stringent restrictions to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed. Mask-wearing, social distancing and booster jabs are vital, but may not be enough.”

Dr Barnard added that it was “crucial for decision makers to consider the wider societal impact of these measures, not just the epidemiology”.

Shortly after hosting a Cobra meeting on Friday with the leaders of each of the devolved nations, the minister for intergovernmental relations Michael Gove said they had been presented with some “very challenging information” about the new variant.

“Action is absolutely required, and as new data comes in, we will consider what action we do require to take in the face of that data,” Mr Gove said, adding: “We absolutely do need to keep everything under review but I think the approach that we’re taking is proportionate.”

Reporting that at least six Cabinet ministers have doubts over further Plan C measures, The Sunday Telegraph quoted a source as saying that Downing Street had been “spooked” by data on the effectiveness of vaccines against the omicron variant.

But health secretary Sajid Javid was reported to have held a conference call on Saturday in a bid to assuage concerns among ministerial aides, during which he insisted that no Plan C measures were under consideration.

Mr Javid had faced a heckle of “resign” from his own benches while announcing Plan B in the Commons, hinting at the extent of Conservative hostility to restrictions, a further headache for the government to bear in mind as the pandemic progresses.

Meanwhile, business minister Paul Scully has admitted that Plan B rules, including masks on public transport and in shops, may be “difficult to enforce”.

“It’s going to be a bit tough, but we’re listening to businesses and we’re trying to work with them to see exactly what it’s like for them on the ground on a day-to-day basis,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“I’m not expecting junior members of staff to put themselves at risk but they need to work with local authorities and indeed the police in the most egregious situations.”

When last questioned about Plan C, a government spokesperson responded: “There are no plans for further restrictions. Plan B is the proportionate approach given what we know at this stage about the omicron variant.

“The government will continue to look closely at all the emerging data and we’ll keep our measures under review as we learn more about this variant.”

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