Boris Johnson tonight finally announced England’s Plan B for Covid as the Omicron variant surges.
Experts warned cases of the new strain are doubling in just 2.5 to three days – up from seven days for the Delta variant.
People are urged to work from home from Monday, must wear face masks in more settings from Friday, produce the NHS Covid pass at big events from next Wednesday, and may get daily contact testing instead of isolation.
It’s what the PM hoped not to do. He hoped he would not have to review restrictions until next week in time for their expiry on December 20.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the change “has made the virus an even more formidable foe” and although there are only 568 confirmed Omicron cases in the UK, “we know the actual number of infections will be significantly higher.”
Mr Javid said the UK Health Security Agency estimates the number of infections “are approximately 20 times” those currently known – so closer to 10,000.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty added: “We know that it looked as if it was going to evade vaccination. And now, clinically, we know that it can.”
Yet Mr Javid was booed in the Commons as he introduced the work-from-home order – which has left Tory MPs furious.
Tory MP William Wragg said vaccine passports “will create a segregated society” – and accused the PM of a dead cat to distract from the No10 party.
“Very few will be convinced by this diversionary tactic”, he swiped.
So what can and can’t you do? Here’s the full rundown of new rules.
Mandatory vaccine passports for venues
Under Plan B, certain venues will be forced to ask punters for an NHS Covid pass.
Under previous plans only the vaccine part would be valid. People would no longer be able to show a negative test.
But today Boris Johnson announced he is putting this plan into action from 6am on Wednesday 15 December – with a key change.
Contrary to previous plans, he said “a negative lateral flow test will also be sufficient” to get you into a nightclub even if you aren’t double-jabbed.
People who haven’t had the booster (just two doses) will still be eligible for now – but Mr Johnson said “we will keep this under review as the boosters roll out.”
It’s thought venues affected will be all nightclubs, and other venues open after 1am with alcohol, music, and dancing.
They also include:
- Indoor, crowded settings with 500 or more attendees where those attendees are likely to be in close proximity to people from other households, such as music venues or large receptions.
- Outdoor, crowded settings with 4,000 or more attendees where those attendees are likely to be in close proximity to people from other households, such as outdoor festivals.
- Any settings with 10,000 or more attendees, such as large sports and music stadia.
Working from home
Under plan B the government “would consider asking people to work from home if they can, for a limited period”, according to the September document.
Today Boris Johnson announced that policy.
He said: “We will reintroduce the guidance to work from home.
“From Monday you should work from home if you can. Go to work if you must but work from home if you can.”
The winter plan admitted: “The Government recognises this causes more disruption and has greater immediate costs to the economy and some businesses than the other Plan B interventions.”
But SAGE had warned it would be a key way of getting cases down.
Mandatory face masks
Face masks have already been mandatory by law in England’s shops, supermarkets, gift shops, indoor shopping centres, public transport including taxis and indoor stations, banks and post offices since 4am on November 28.
They are also compulsory at hair salons, barbers, nail salons, massage centres, tattoo and piercing studios.
And they’re needed during driving tests and lessons – plus at pharmacies, vets, auction houses, retail galleries, takeaways (if people don’t eat on site), estate and lettings agents, high street solicitors and accountants.
Tonight Boris Johnson announced they will be extended to “most public indoor venues including theatres and cinemas” too from 12.01am this Friday.
There will be exemptions for eating, drinking, exercising, and singing. For that reason, hospitality venues – including pubs and restaurants – will be completely exempt.
Those who do not comply can be fined £200 for a first offence (£100 if you pay within two weeks), doubling on each repeat offence up to £6,400. Police will be expected to enforce the rules.
Daily contact testing
New rules say any contact of a suspected Omicron case must isolate for 10 days.
But that could cause a pingdemic if cases surge to a million in total by the end of the month, as Sajid Javid warned they could.
Therefore Boris Johnson said the government will introduce daily tests for contacts instead of isolation. He did not say when.
Face masks in schools
At the end of November, secondary schools in England were recommended to ask pupils to wear masks in communal areas and corridors.
There are reports of talks ongoing about whether to extend this. However there was no immediate announcement.
New foreign travel rules
Since November 28, all arrivals in the UK from anywhere in the world have had to take a paid-for PCR test within 48 hours of their arrival – and isolate until the result comes back negative.
Since yesterday (December 7) they have also had to take another pre-departure test before they board their flight back to the UK.
Previously, vaccinated travellers only had to take a lateral flow Day 2 test, and did not have to isolate. The new rules apply even to the double-jabbed.
Arrivals who land without having booked a Day 2 test in advance can be fined £1,000 on the spot.
Eleven countries were also added to England’s red list, forcing all arrivals into hotel quarantine costing £2,285 a head for 11 nights. They include South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.
Boris Johnson did not announce any extension to this tonight.
This is where Plan B gets vaguer.
The Winter Plan said the government would ensure it “communicates clearly and urgently to the public that the level of risk has increased, and with it the need to behave more cautiously.”
Boris Johnson today gave some of that messaging as ministers warned of the rapid doubling time of the virus.
When will Plan B end?
The measures announced today will be reviewed on January 5 and the government will update Parliament.
Regulations will then “sunset” on January 26, Sajid Javid told MPs.
But both of these days could be brought forward or pushed back so they’re not actually massively relevant. Don’t forget the original lockdown was only for three weeks.
We can glean some information from the criteria for triggering Plan B in the first place. Key questions the government would ask include:
Is the NHS in danger of being overwhelmed? This crucially isn’t just about cases – hospitalisations and deaths are more important. Key metrics include “hospital occupancy for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, intensive care unit (ICU) capacity, admissions in vaccinated individuals, and the rate of growth of admissions.”
The link between hospitalisation and infections: The winter plan says the Government is monitoring “the ratio of cases to hospitalisations” and also “the proportion of admissions due to infections” among other factors. It also states ministers are keeping an eye on how many people over 65-years-old are catching Covid-19 or ending up in hospital.
Vaccine efficacy and immunity: A major booster campaign for the over-50s and the most vulnerable started in September, but there are some calls for it to be stepped up. Crucial will be whether immunity across the population is waning, or whether it’s being kept strong by the booster programme.
The impact of new variants: In recent months the threat of a new, more deadly or more infectious variant appears to have faded. But that doesn’t mean it won’t emerge in future months, and the government now has a sequencing infrastructure that will attempt to spot them as they appear.
Could it go further?
Yes. Boris Johnson has refused to rule out lockdown measures at Christmas – or, as some scientists fear is more likely, in January when Omicron surges.
Some have warned the Plan B measures above are pretty minimal overall. In particular, if cases rise too high, you might need much stricter measures to actually bring cases down, rather than keep them stable or rising more slowly.
The Plan B document in September said: “While the Government expects that, with strong engagement from the public and businesses, these contingency measures should be sufficient to reverse a resurgence in autumn or winter, the nature of the virus means it is not possible to give guarantees.
“The Government remains committed to taking whatever action is necessary to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed but more harmful economic and social restrictions would only be considered as a last resort.”