Ministers are not planning to announce any post-Christmas COVID restrictions this week, the health secretary has confirmed.
It comes after senior government sources told Sky News that Boris Johnson would not be following the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have all made pre-Christmas announcements on curbs to come in next week.
The prime minister had already ruled out restrictions in England before Christmas.
Speaking on Thursday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We’re clear that there’s no need for any further restrictions of any type before Christmas but of course we will keep the situation under review.”
Asked whether there will be any post-Christmas restrictions announced for England, he said: “We’re not planning any further announcements this week.”
Mr Javid added that people “should enjoy their Christmases with their families and their friends” but “of course, remain cautious”.
“We will keep the situation under review,” he said. “We are learning more all the time as we have done from this new data”.
“We will keep analysing that data and if we need to do anything more we will, but nothing more is going to happen before Christmas.”
New data on the severity of the Omicron variant from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is set to be published today.
Two recent UK studies by scientists at Edinburgh University and Imperial College London showed that it appears to be milder than Delta, raising hopes that people infected with Omicron are less likely to be hospitalised.
But they came against the backdrop of a record day for COVID cases, with more than 100,000 reported for the first time since widespread testing was introduced.
The government is monitoring new data from these two studies but are doing so with caution as the gains from milder disease may still be cancelled out by higher numbers of infections.
They are also still carefully monitoring hospitalisation rates which are rising steeply in London.
Omicron ‘milder’ than Delta
One study in England found that people infected with Omicron are 15-20% less likely to be admitted to hospital compared to those infected with Delta.
Imperial College London said people with PCR-confirmed Omicron are 40-45% less likely to spend a night or more in hospital compared with Delta.
And those who’ve had a previous infection are 50-60% less likely to be hospitalised, compared with those with no previous infection.
However, Professor Neil Ferguson, from the Imperial College London team behind the study, warned that Omicron’s severity may be offset by the “reduced efficacy” of vaccines to stop it from being transmitted.
Separately, scientists in a Scotland-wide study claim Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of hospital admission compared with Delta.
Cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs argue that the new research has “weakened” the need for any further restrictions before the end of the year, reports The Daily Telegraph.
The paper also says the UK could go down the route of offering a fourth jab, following Israel, while The Times reports “little Nightingales” may be set up in hospital car parks in case of an Omicron surge.
The prime minister has confirmed he will not introduce more measures in England before Christmas, warning the situation remains “finely balanced” ahead of the New Year.
But ministers have stressed the government is constantly considering new COVID data, and leaders in the other home nations have already gone ahead with announcing post-Christmas rules.
Support for businesses
Labour has called for clarity on the next steps so that people know where they stand for the coming week.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth has suggested “a roadmap” should be produced of what restrictions businesses may face ahead of New Year’s Eve.
Businesses in Wales impacted by the emergence of Omicron will be eligible for emergency financial support via a new Welsh Government support package.
Economy minister Vaughan Gething has announced details of the £120m funding – which will be available for retail, hospitality, leisure, and tourism businesses and their supply chains.
It comes as new analysis shows more than 400 pubs have disappeared across England and Wales due to the toll of the pandemic in 2021.
Using official government data, real estate adviser Altus Group found the number of pubs liable for property taxes, including those vacant and being offered to let, fell by 444 to 40,173 in December, compared with 40,617 last year.
Robert Hayton, UK president at Altus Group, said pubs had borne the brunt of restrictions and Omicron’s potential impact next year “could be the straw that broke the camel’s back for many”.