Boris Johnson brought forward new restrictions in England – including Covid passes to enter crowded venues and mask-wearing in cinemas and theatres – amid a warning that omicron infections could reach a million by the end of the month.
But the prime minister sweetened the pill by announcing a negative Covid test will be allowed for venues, as well as proof of vaccination, and by lifting isolation rules for contacts of omicron cases, who can take daily tests instead.
Denying the package had been rushed out to distract attention from the furore over last year’s No 10 parties, Mr Johnson also held out the hope that the curbs could be lifted early in the new year.
There is “a strong possibility” the scientists will soon discover that a booster jab is “capable of holding omicron in equilibrium in the way that we want”, he argued.
“And then, as I said, we will be able to move forward,” the prime minister told a Downing Street press conference.
Nevertheless, to move to plan B sparked an angry backlash from some Conservative MPs, one of whom heckled the health secretary, Sajid Javid, as he delivered a Commons statement.
Greg Clark, the former cabinet minister, accused Mr Javid of going back on a pledge that he would not resort to further restrictions simply because of a leap in cases, when the level of hospital admissions is the key.
“That data is not available yet. So why has the secretary of state reversed his position and jumped the gun in this way?” Mr Clark demanded to know.
Another former cabinet minister, David Davis, asked: “Where is the evidence that vaccine passports actually work? France introduced them in the summer, they now have more cases than they had in the last peak.”
The Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross – who is still an MP – ridiculed the effectiveness of Covid passes, saying: “I didn’t vote for them at Holyrood and I won’t be voting for them at Westminster.”
The Night Time Industries Association described the move to Covid passes – from one week’s time – as “devastating news” for nightclubs and other venues which attract large crowds.
The passes will be required in unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue with more than 10,000 people.
Mr Johnson said he was acting – one week before a review of existing Covid restrictions was due – because of “worrying” evidence that omicron cases are doubling in the UK every 2-3 days, adding: “We must be humble in the face of this virus.”
But, asked whether that meant Christmas parties and nativity plays should be cancelled, he replied: “No, in my view they should not.
“They should follow the guidance, of course, but we are not saying we want kids to be taken out of school before the end of term – not that there is very long to go now – and we don’t want nativity plays to be cancelled.
“We think that it is okay currently, on what we can see, to keep going with Christmas parties.”
His aim was for restrictions to be in place “no later than early January and possibly before” if new data could justify it.
Alongside the prime minister, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty urged the public to stay upbeat because vaccines mean the country is “immeasurably better off” than at the start of the pandemic.
“It will be much quicker getting over this than it would have been if the same situation had hit us a year ago,” Professor Whitty said.
“I can see why people feel deflated, but this is a setback – this is not a situation where we are back to square one.”
Mr Johnson again dismissed the prospect of mandatory vaccinations at the press conference but admitted there would need to be “a national conversation” about how to protect the public.
“I said right at the beginning of this pandemic… I didn’t want us to have a society and a culture where we forced people to get vaccinated. I don’t think that’s ever been the way we do things in this country,” he told the press conference.
But he added: “I want to be absolutely clear, I don’t believe we can keep going indefinitely with non-pharmaceutical interventions. I mean, restrictions on people’s way of life just because a substantial proportion of the population still sadly, has not got vaccinated.
“I think we do need to have a national conversation about the way forward.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies