Despite a huge drive to dole out booster vaccinations and the enforcement of so-called ‘Plan B’ measures, Covid-19 and the new Omicron variant continue to spread rapidly throughout the UK. A seven-day average puts new Covid cases at nearly 80,000 per day, with Omicron spreading particularly quickly in London.
The NHS is delivering record-breaking numbers of boosters, in fact. But that doesn’t appear to be enough. Last week London mayor Sadiq Khan declared a ‘major incident’ due to rising cases and increasing numbers of ill NHS staff, while scientists warned that, without further restrictions, the UK could quickly hit up to two million new Covid cases per day.
So the question around future restrictions now appears to be not so much if but when. And, indeed, health secretary Sajid Javid yesterday refused to rule out restrictions before Christmas. In short, England could see new curbs brought in within days. So what could those restrictions be? According to The Telegraph, advisers have presented PM Boris Johnson with three options.
The first and most likely option would see Johnson ask the public to limit indoor household mixing at Christmas. This would not be legally enforced, but may help limit the spread of Covid, which is more likely to transmit in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces. This option doesn’t really involve much government intervention, and wouldn’t need to pass a vote in Parliament.
A second potential option is the legal enforcement of restrictions on household mixing, along with some kind of curfew for pubs and restaurants. This would also almost certainly reduce the spread of Covid and Omicron, but it would also be exceptionally unpopular. The wider public likely doesn’t want any sort of repeat of last year’s locked-down Christmas, and many of Johnson’s own Conservative MPs have threatened to revolt should he attempt further restrictions over the festive period.
Furthermore, with these measures you’d expect far greater government support of the hospitality, entertainment and nightlife industries. As it stands, those who rely on those industries for their livelihoods are suffering from significant revenue loss due to cancelled reservations and lack of attendance. Many theatres, restaurants, pubs and clubs are already in dire need of financial aid, and additional restrictions would mean more support is needed.
The final option is the most extreme – a lockdown. Obviously, we all already know what a lockdown entails: the enforced closure of all non-essential businesses and harsh travel restrictions. As proven in the UK last year, lockdowns undeniably slow the spread of Covid, but they’re also an absolute last-resort and take a massive mental and economic toll on huge numbers of people. With a lockdown, we would expect the reintroduction of the furlough system, as well as government financial support for all affected businesses.
What exact form the lockdown would take is a little more uncertain. Would it be a full lockdown of England and/or the UK or – seeing as London is such an Omicron hotspot – could it be regional? Would a lockdown be open-ended, as per last year, or would it be a short ‘circuit-breaker’? Whatever form it takes, a lockdown (as with any new legal restrictions) would have to pass a parliamentary vote and Johnson’s already-disgruntled Tory backbenchers.
In the meantime, the best most of us can do is follow current government advice and keep our eyes peeled for announcements. The government is expected to hold a press conference either this afternoon or in the coming days laying out further plans to combat Covid and Omicron.