Boris Johnson: Christmas can go ahead but new Covid curbs loom

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The Prime Minister’s clear message, ending days of uncertainty, included a warning to be careful when celebrating with family and friends. He said the rapid spread of Omicron left the UK facing an “extremely difficult” situation, but there was not enough evidence to justify immediate new measures.

He also repeated his appeal for everyone eligible to get their booster jabs as soon as possible.

In a video address last night, the PM said: “There is no doubt that Omicron continues to surge with a speed unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“The situation remains extremely difficult but I also recognise that people have been waiting to hear whether their Christmas plans are going to be affected.

“So what I can say tonight is that naturally we can’t rule out any further measures after Christmas – and we’re going to keep a constant eye on the data, and we’ll do whatever it takes to protect public health.

“But in view of the continuing uncertainty about several things – the severity of Omicron, uncertainty about the hospitalisation rate or the impact of the vaccine rollout or the boosters – we don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas.

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

“What this means is that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans. But the situation remains finely balanced and I would urge everyone to exercise caution, to keep protecting yourselves and your loved ones, especially the vulnerable.

“And remember to keep following the guidance. Wear a mask indoors when required to do so, keep fresh air circulating, and take a test before you visit elderly or vulnerable relatives.

“So, if you have not done so already then please drop everything, find a walk-in or go online and make an appointment and get boosted now.”

Mr Johnson’s appeal followed a two-hour emergency Cabinet meeting on Monday where a string of ministers spoke out against immediate new Covid restrictions.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance outlined the latest data on the spread of Omicron at the meeting.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was understood to have led the opposition to new restrictions, and was backed up by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

They were said to have been unconvinced that data on the infection rate and number of hospitalisations justified new restrictions on households and businesses. Health Secretary Sajid Javid, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and Treasury Chief Secretary Simon Clarke were reported to have spoken in favour of immediate action at the meeting.

MPs are braced for a possible recall of Parliament to approve new measures next week if fresh evidence convinces senior ministers of a need for rapid action.

New data from scientists at Imperial College London due to be published today is expected to play a key role in the looming decision about restrictions.

Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay insisted festive celebrations should go ahead this week, but households should take care to keep numbers of guests down. He said: “We are saying to people that they should continue with Christmas, but do so in a cautious way. That is what I will be doing with my own family.

“I think it is thinking about how many people we need to see. Some of my family won’t be coming over at Christmas. My wife’s parents will be joining us but others will not.” Mr Sunak has announced more than £1billion in Treasury support for businesses hit by falling Christmas trade following the Omicron surge.

After days of concern about the impact on the hospitality sector from cancelled parties and other festive events, the Chancellor pledged grants of up to £6,000 for firms in England affected.

He also unveiled £100million in emergency funding to help councils support local businesses along with a further £30million for theatres, museums and other cultural organisations.

And he committed taxpayers’ money to cover the cost of Statutory Sick Pay for Covid-related absences for small and medium-sized employers across the UK.

Around 200,000 businesses will be eligible for the Treasury business grants, which will be administered by local authorities and be ­available in the coming weeks. Mr Sunak said: “We recognise that the spread of the Omicron variant means businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors are facing huge uncertainty at a crucial time.

“People will be able to look at our track record over the last year or two supporting people and businesses, especially in the hospitality industry throughout this crisis.

“I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face. People can have confidence in that.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, welcomed the support.

She said: “The decline in trade at this critical period has been catastrophic so we are extremely grateful that the Chancellor has recognised this and come forward with a generous package of support.

“This will help businesses to stay afloat and preserve jobs.” NHS England figures show that 1,904 people were in hospital in London with Covid-19 as of yesterday,
the highest number since March 2 and up 41 per cent from a week earlier.

Across England, 6,902 patients were in hospital with Covid – the highest number since November 10.

A further 90,629 lab-confirmed Covid cases were recorded, with 172 deaths.

US President Joe Biden yesterday warned unvaccinated Americans they are putting themselves and loved ones at risk.

He said: “If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned.

“You have an obligation to yourselves, to your family and quite frankly, I know I will be criticised for this, but to your country.

“I honest to god believe it’s your patriotic duty.”

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