Plan B: Boris Johnson set to approve new Covid restrictions as omicron cases surge

Measures outlined in government’s plan B strategy in the summer included work from home guidance and Covid certification for crowded venues

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Ashley Cowburn
Wednesday 08 December 2021 11:55
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Neil Ferguson: Lockdowns to deal with Omicron cannot be ruled out

Boris Johnson and senior ministers are today expected to agree the introduction of tighter “plan B” restrictions at a meeting called in response to the surge in infections with the omicron variant of Covid.

The contingency plan — first outlined by ministers in the summer — includes new guidance to work from home if possible, as well as the introduction of Covid passes for crowded venues such as nightclubs, and is intended for introduction if the NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed.

Senior Whitehall sources said that a meeting of the government’s Covid-O committee has been called to discuss whether to step up restrictions, with a press conference expected later in the day to announce changes.

Downing Street sources said “no decisions have been made” on plan B ahead of the meeting, suggesting that the possibility remains that Mr Johnson will hold back from imposing new curbs.

News of the meeting was greeted by scepticism by Westminster insiders who suspected that the timing may have been calculated to distract attention from damaging headlines over an alleged Christmas party at 10 Downing Street last year.

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser at No 10, described the move towards plan B as a “dead cat” strategy.

According to the government’s Covid autumn and winter plan, published in September, the plan B strategy would “only be enacted if the data suggests further measures are necessary to protect the NHS”.

It stated the measures include a mandatory vaccine-only Covid status certification in certain settings, such as nightclubs and indoor crowded venues with 500 or more attendees likely to be in close proximity with other households.

It also proposed the return of work from home guidance, with the Sage committee stressing the measure had played an “important role in preventing sustained epidemic growth” in the months before Covid restrictions were released.

Another key tenant of “plan B” is to legally mandate face coverings in certain settings — a measure that has already been adopted by the prime minister a fortnight ago for public transport and shops, but could be extended to further settings.

It comes after a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) today said that a UK-wide lockdown to deal with the threat of omicron cannot be ruled out.

Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose data was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said the variant is concerning but it is still unknown what its impact will be on severe disease.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme professor Ferguson said cases of the omicron variant were doubling “at least every days, maybe even every two days at the moment”, adding: “It’s likely to overtake Delta before Christmas at this rate, precisely when is hard to say.

Asked whether people should be told to work from home, he said: “It will be up to the Government to decide what to announce in the coming days and weeks.

“There is a rationale, just epidemiologically, to try and slow this down, to buy us more time principally to get boosters into people’s arms, because we do think people who are boosted will have the best level of protection possible, but also to buy us more time to really better characterise the threat.

“So, if you imagine a kind of Plan B Plus with working from home might slow it down – it wouldn’t stop it but it could slow it down, so it’s doubling rather than every two or three days, every five or six days.

“That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it actually is potentially a lot in terms of allowing us to characterise this virus better and boost population immunity.”

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