No new Covid restrictions before Christmas, Boris Johnson announces

But public left in the dark about the threat of tough new curbs before the New Year

No new Covid restrictions before Christmas, Boris Johnson announces

Britain remains under the threat of tough new Covid restrictions over the New Year and into January, despite Boris Johnson giving the go-ahead to Christmas celebrations.

The prime minister confirmed families can gather and venues stay open this weekend – arguing there is not “enough evidence” to impose curbs – but warned they remain on the table for “after Christmas” if needed.

Ministers are waiting on crucial data on the extent to which rising Omicron infections will trigger a level of hospital cases that would swamp the NHS – figures are expected on Wednesday.

Restrictions that would return England to the near-lockdown of last April – with curbs on household mixing and the return of social distancing rules – are still being considered.

But Mr Johnson is also facing a fight in his own cabinet to agree any further restrictions, after a majority of his senior ministers opposed them at an emergency meeting on Monday.

In a video message, Mr Johnson sought to lift the uncertainty over festive get-togethers, telling people: ‘We don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas.”

However, he warned the situation remained “finely balanced” and said: “Naturally we can’t rule out any further measures after Christmas – and we’re going to keep a constant eye on the data.”

The continued uncertainty came as hospitality and leisure businesses criticised a £1bn support package unveiled by Rishi Sunak as inadequate, one likening it to a “dud cracker on Christmas Day”.

Some scientists were quick to attack the further delay to any decision, despite the government’s own advisers warning the NHS is at risk without stringent measures now.

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the Warwick Medical School, said: “This is a very risky approach and is very likely to result in the need for more stringent restrictions in the near future.”

And Dr Peter English, a former chair of the BMA public health medicine committee, warned: “It now seems inevitable that the NHS and many other public and private services will be overwhelmed in January. Action now can reduce the harm done; but it is too late to prevent it altogether.”

At a briefing for MPs, the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said it was a “certainty” that infection rates will continue to rise, as many NHS staff are forced off work.

The paralysis in Downing Street came despite Nicola Sturgeon announcing further restrictions in Scotland, where football crowds will be limited to 500 fans and pubs allowed table service only.

Wales, which has already banned crowds at sporting events from Boxing Day, is poised to unveil further curbs on Wednesday, after the Welsh parliament was recalled.

In contrast, Mr Johnson did not face any questions about his decisions, as he shunned a press conference in favour of the video message recorded in No 10.

He pointed to “continuing uncertainty” about the severity and hospitalisation rate of the Omicron variant, amid some evidence that fast-rising infections are plateauing.

“We continue to monitor Omicron very closely and if the situation deteriorates we will be ready to take action if needed,” the prime minister said.

“What this means is that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans but the situation remains finely balanced.”

Wes Streeting MP, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said people would be “breathing a sigh of relief that Christmas is going ahead as planned”.

But he added: “Boris Johnson is too weak to get any measures to keep the country safe through his cabinet.

“The prime minister is focused on clinging on to his job, half his cabinet are preparing their leadership campaigns, and the country is left with no plan to deal with the imminent threat of Omicron.”

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