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UK Covid news LIVE: Omicron surges in London as Boris Johnson faces Tory anger over Plan B restrictions

·24 min read
UK Covid news LIVE: Omicron surges in London as Boris Johnson faces Tory anger over Plan B restrictions

London is seeing a sharp rise in cases of the Omicron variant with Lewisham and Newham among the boroughs most affected, health officials have revealed.

It comes as the capital braces itself for the introduction of tough “Plan B” restrictions aimed at delaying the spread of the new Covid-19 strain.

Under the measures announced by Boris Johnson on Wednesday night, face masks will be required in more public settings, including theatres and cinemas, from Friday.

The Prime Minister also said that work-from-home guidance will return and Covid health certificates are to become mandatory in large venues from next week.

Mr Johnson is facing a backlash from Tory MPs after he triggered Plan B.

Meanwhile the row over Christmas parties continues to rumble, as the Tory party admitted a gathering was held at its HQ in December 2020 while London was under Tier 2 restrictions.

The PM remains under pressure over a leaked video that saw his Downing Street aides joke about a festive gathering, resulting in his former press secretary Allegra Stratton’s resignation on Wednesday afternoon.

We will bring you live updates here.

Read More

Tories admit throwing HQ party during Covid restrictions last December

Sajid Javid: ‘I was too upset to face journalists after Downing Street party video’

Boris Johnson triggers Plan B measures for England as Omicron cases double every two days

That is all for our coverage today. Thank you for reading.

22:06 , Robert Dex

17:11 , Robert Dex

The UK is going to see a “really rather large wave of Omicron” and deaths in the next few months, a scientist advising the government has said.

Asked about the trajectory of the Covid pandemic, Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told a Royal Society of Medicine briefing “we’re certainly not out of the woods”.

He added: “I think over the next two months, we’re going to see a really rather large wave of Omicron, we’re getting large numbers of cases and that will result in a large number of hospitalisations and, unfortunately, it will result in a large number of deaths, I’m pretty sure of that.

“What happens next? It’s pretty clear the virus hasn’t done with evolution. It’s going to continue to evolve.

“I’ve long thought that what we’ll start to see is that the virus evolves towards being more of an immune escape than necessarily more transmissible.”

50,000 new daily Covid cases across the UK

17:04 , Robert Dex

The Government said, as of 9am on Thursday, there had been a further 50,867 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK. It also said a further 148 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.

Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have now been 171,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

The figures were released as it was announced Communities Secretary Michael Gove is self-isolating after coming into contact with Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who has tested positive for coronavirus.

Covid-19 case rates in London at highest level since start of the year

15:25 , Robert Dex

Covid-19 case rates in London, eastern England and the south-east have climbed to their highest level since the start of the year, new figures show.

A total of 648.5 new cases per 100,000 people were recorded in the south-east in the week to December 5, the highest rate for the region since the week to January 3.

Eastern England is at 552.4 cases per 100,000, the highest since the week to January 10, while London’s rate stands at 461.1, the highest since the week ending January 17.

The south-east has recorded the highest regional rate in England in the three most recent weeks, suggesting it is one of the main areas of the UK driving the current spike in cases.

The figures, from the Health Security Agency, show rates are rising in all regions along with most age groups.

Three fined for breaching ban on gatherings on same day as alleged No 10 ‘party’

15:20 , Elly Blake

Three women have been fined for attending gatherings in breach of coronavirus rules on the same day as the alleged Christmas party at Downing Street last year.

The Metropolitan Police has said officers will not investigate the alleged December 18 event, where staff and aides are said to have drunk together, eaten cheese and swapped secret Santa presents.

But prosecutions for breaches of Covid-19 regulations at Westminster Magistrates’ Court last week included three women convicted over gatherings on the same day as the alleged festive bash, according to court records first reported by the Evening Standard.

Ami Goto, 23, from Marylebone, and Ebru Sen, 26, from Sittingbourne in Kent, were each fined £1,100 plus £210 costs for a gathering of two or more people in a flat in Holborn when London was under Tier 3 restrictions.

Emilia Petruta-Cristea, 24, was also fined £1,100 and ordered to pay £210 costs over a gathering at her home in Wanstead.

The cases were dealt with behind closed doors by a magistrate sitting under the single justice procedure.

Slovakia to pay over-60s for getting vaccinated

15:01 , Elly Blake

Slovakia’s parliament has approved a plan to give people aged 60 and over up to 300 euros (£260) if they are vaccinated against Covid-19.

It is hoped the measure, drafted by Finance Minister Igor Matovic, will boost vaccinate uptake as Slovakia currently has one of the EU’s lowest vaccination rates.

So far, only 46.5 per cent of the nation’s 5.5 million people have been fully vaccinated.

In the 97-13 vote, parliament agreed that those who have received at least one primary dose of the vaccine by January 15 will receive 200 euros (£170) in cash, and those who have received a booster by that date will get 300 euros (£260).

The deal is a compromise because the current four-party ruling coalition in Slovakia was split over the issue.

The original plan had been to give people vouchers worth 500 euros (£430) that could be used in certain businesses, but it was opposed by the pro-business Freedom and Solidarity Party.

Slovakia has been facing a record surge of infections, making it one of the hardest hit nations in the world.

The country has been under lockdown since November 25, with citizens allowed to leave their homes only for specific reasons.

Currently, 3,419 people are in hospital in Slovakia, putting the health system under pressure.

If the number reaches 3,800, the government plans to impose more restrictions. Slovakia has reported over 757,000 coronavirus cases and 15,179 deaths in the pandemic.

Grant Shapps: Plan B necessary to ‘keep lid on’ Omicron

14:53 , Elly Blake

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the Plan B rules were necessary to “keep a lid on” the Omicron variant.

Asked if he had spoken out about the new restrictions, he said: “I think we have to do whatever is required.

“I am afraid with the wave of Omicron it appears to double in something like two to four days, which is the estimate, if you do the maths you discover there are already one million potential cases by Christmas.

“We know what happens if a very small proportion of those people have to go to hospital.

“Hospitals become full and we cannot take people in for emergency treatment or elective surgery, and so it is very important we keep a lid on that.

“So, yes, I was involved in the discussions about what we should do.”

He said Plan B restrictions have been known since July, adding: “Hopefully it will enable us to keep a lid on Omicron and make sure, in the meantime, everyone is getting boosted which is the thing, ultimately, we think will help.”

PM ‘doesn’t want society where we force people to get vaccinated'

14:21 , Elly Blake

The Prime Minister was making a “broader point” when he said there needed to be a “national conversation” when asked about mandatory vaccinations, his official spokesman said.

Asked about the comments, he said: “I think he was making a broader point on the intention to keep developing further mitigations against coronavirus and any subsequent mutations, be that polyvalent vaccinations or further therapeutics, like the antivirals that we’re rolling out.”

He said: “We recognise how challenging this is, and disheartening for the public to see us having to introduce further restrictions, albeit at a relatively limited level.

“And so we will do everything possible to continue to be at the cutting edge of this work.

“I think he was clear that he didn’t want us to have a society and culture where we forced people to get vaccinated.”

Transport Secretary ‘upset’ over leaked No 10 video

13:53 , Elly Blake

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he was “upset, even infuriated” while watching the leaked Downing Street video of aides joking about a Christmas party because his own father was ill in hospital over the festive season.

He said: “This time last year my dad was lying in hospital and I couldn’t go and visit him.

“We didn’t know if he was going to make it.

“In fact he was in hospital for four months and he did make it, I’m pleased to report.

“So I was quite upset, even infuriated, watching the video the other night and it is absolutely right that it is properly and fully investigated.

“It should be said that the Prime Minister was not present at any of these alleged events and indeed we do not know what actually happened, and that is why he has asked the Cabinet Secretary to look into it and report back.”

Downing Street indicated Simon Case made decision to widen scope of Christmas parties investigation

13:38 , Elly Blake

Downing Street indicated Cabinet Secretary Simon Case made the decision to widen the scope of the investigation into Westminster parties during the 2020 lockdown.

“As the Prime Minister set out, it’s up to the Cabinet Secretary, as part of an independent process he is able to look into what he feels is relevant and appropriate,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

The review will look at a confirmed gathering at the Department for Education’s Whitehall headquarters on December 10 last year, and a reported leaving do for a No 10 aide – allegedly attended by Mr Johnson – on November 27, as well as the Downing Street party on December 18 which triggered the investigation.

Inclusion of proof of negative test in Covid passes is ‘proportionate’ way of introducing measure

13:28 , Elly Blake

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the inclusion of proof of a negative test in Covid certification plans was a “proportionate way” of introducing the measure.

But it was confirmed this could be a lateral flow test taken at home, where the trust is put on it being reported correctly to the NHS.

There will be no fine for anyone faking a coronavirus test result but there would be fines for businesses who did not check Covid passes properly, starting at £1,000 – halved if paid within 14 days – rising to £2,000, £4,000, then £10,000 for subsequent offences.

There would also be penalties for people who provide fake Covid passes.

A text message or email from the NHS could also be used to prove Covid-19 status, as well as the official Covid pass.

The spokesman said that so far the public had been taking it “seriously and being responsible” with this method of testing.

‘Without action, consequences would be severe’ - No 10 on Plan B

13:25 , Elly Blake

Downing Street warned there could be “severe” consequences in terms of hospital admissions and deaths if the Plan B measures are not implemented.

Asked whether Tory rebels would be putting lives at risk by opposing the restrictions, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We think these are the right measures which will slow the growth. I’m not going to comment on decisions or motivations when MPs are voting, that wouldn’t be for me.

“But I simply would make the point that we do know, and the advice that we have received, is without action – given the incredibly fast growth rate of this variant – the consequences, in terms of hospitalisations and deaths, could be severe.

“Given we know that boosters do provide a level of protection – and potentially a significant level of protection – it is only responsible to provide that extra time to get more people protected.”

Covid travel restrictions to be reviewed on December 20

13:20 , Elly Blake

Coronavirus travel restrictions will still be reviewed ahead of December 20 despite the introduction of Plan B.

However, domestic measures brought in two weeks ago, including on isolation for those who had been in contact with anyone with the Omicron variant, will not be reviewed as Plan B measures for contacts to have daily tests would supersede those.

The new measures will be reviewed again on January 5 and have a sunset clause of January 25, and therefore after that point would need a new vote in Parliament.

However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Boris Johnson would not hesitate to remove measures if the data showed the situation had improved.

He said: “The PM’s message to all MPs would be the very moment we get any information on characteristics that change that picture for the better then we would, of course, act and remove at the very earliest possible opportunity.”

Austrian vaccine mandate will apply to teenagers

13:09 , Elly Blake

Austria’s planned coronavirus vaccine mandate will have a minimum age of 14, health minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said on Thursday.

The mandate, which is due to come into force in February, will introduce fines of 3,600 euros, Mr Mueckstein said.

Details of this plan must still be approved by parliament.

However, the government says it has the backing of two opposition parties, suggesting it should pass easily.

Click here to find out more what we are saying about mandatory vaccinations in the UK.

Second ‘Downing Street party’ to be probed

12:46 , Daniel Keane

The probe into alleged Covid rule-busting parties in Government has been widened to include another festive celebration and a reported staff leaving do.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis has told MPs that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case will, as well as investigating reports of a staff Christmas bash at Downing Street on December 18 2020, also look into two other alleged events.

He will include in his review a confirmed gathering at the Department for Education’s Whitehall headquarters on December 10 last year, and a reported leaving event for a No 10 aide on November 27.

Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Mr Ellis said: “The primary purpose of the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, and with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time.

“If required, the investigation will establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted.”

Rees Mogg dismisses return to virtual parliament

12:10 , Daniel Keane

A return to a virtual Parliament has been dismissed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, despite people being encouraged to work from home.

SNP Commons leader Pete Wishart said: “Yesterday the Prime Minister said you should work from home if you can. Well, this House has shown that it can with our virtual participation and proxy voting.

“After the loss of public trust we now have an opportunity to lead by example and do exactly what the Prime Minister says, so will he take the Prime Minister’s calling seriously? For the sake of the people that work in here, for the sake of the people we serve, will he now turn back on the virtual Parliament?”

Mr Rees-Mogg replied: “Of course we should be here working. What the Government has said in its guidance is that you should not go into work if you don’t need to.

“Parliament does not work properly with people absent, and it is very disappointing that the Opposition is so lily-livered about holding the Government to account that it wants to go back home early – that’s not how democracy should work.”

Cabinet Secretary is independent, says minister

11:35 , Elly Blake

The Cabinet Secretary’s investigation can be relied upon to be independent, a minister has said.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis also assured MPs of the independence of the police from Government.

Labour MP for York Central Rachael Maskell called into question the integrity of the internal investigation into the alleged Downing Street Christmas parties which was announced by the Prime Minister, saying her constituents had “no confidence” in the investigation.

Mr Ellis replied: “The Cabinet Secretary is independent. The cabinet secretaries in this country serve all the political parties dependent on who is in government and they can be relied upon to investigate the matter fully, independently and we will await the results of his investigation.”

New Covid restrictions to be voted on next Tuesday, Jacob Rees-Mogg says

11:32 , Elly Blake

Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs the Commons is still scheduled to rise for Christmas on December 16, amid reports the recess could be brought forward to December 14.

The Commons Leader also confirmed new Covid-19 measures for England will be debated and voted on next Tuesday.

He added: “At the conclusion of business on Thursday December 16 the House will rise for the Christmas recess and return on Wednesday January 5.”

Cabinet Secretary ‘not at any relevant gathering'

11:11 , Elly Blake

MPs were told Cabinet Secretary and civil service chief Simon Case, who is leading the Christmas party investigation, was “not at any relevant gathering”.

Michael Ellis said: “My understanding is the Cabinet Secretary has denied any attendance at any gathering that is the subject of this matter.

“The reality of the matter is that he therefore can be said to be completely separate at the head of the civil service and able to conduct a thorough investigation, as one would expect from someone with his seniority.

“He has, I’m told, indicated he was not at any relevant gathering.”

Entertainment boss welcomes new emergency measures

10:30 , Elly Blake

Dame Rosemary Squire, joint chief executive of theatre operator Trafalgar Entertainment, welcomed new rules on mask-wearing and use of the NHS Covid pass in venues.

She said in a statement: “There are positives and negatives in the announcements made last night. We’re encouraged that the Government has acknowledged that theatres are a safe environment by not extending the ‘proof of vaccination’ rules to indoor seated settings at our scale. This is a proportionate response and one which recognises the energy, hard work and commitment that the whole industry has put in to ensure Covid-safe operation since reopening.

“Similarly, the changes to the 10-day self-isolation rules are balanced and will be hugely helpful to producers in keeping shows open and touring through the winter. This is a positive step for an industry still recovering from the worst period in its history.”

She added: “Our sector was ahead of the game in recommending that face-coverings should be worn in theatres (unless exempt or consuming food and drink in bars or auditoriums) and, whilst there will be some challenges for our venue teams in enforcing the new rules, we welcome the fact that this move provides a clear and consistent line on this issue. We hope it will offer further reassurance to customers, performers and venue staff.

“However, whilst these measures will increase confidence for some, there is a danger that further restrictions may amplify concern for others particularly our more vulnerable audience members. We expect to be fielding calls as a result; and after a fairly extraordinary bounce-back over recent months we are concerned at the potential for some customers simply to ‘stay-away’ over the crucial Christmas period.”

Labour to ask Urgent Question in Commons

09:41 , Elly Blake

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has granted Labour an urgent question on the details of the investigation into Downing Street Christmas parties.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Fleur Anderson will ask the question from 10.30am.

Dominic Raab self-isolating

09:38 , Elly Blake

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab is self-isolating after coming into contact earlier in the week with the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, who has since tested positive for coronavirus.

Barnaby Joyce confirmed he tested positive while travelling in Washington DC and is now self-isolating.

Before arriving in the US, he had travelled to London and is believed to have met Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Mr Raab.

A spokeswoman for Mr Raab said: “He is getting tested and he is self-isolating while we wait to hear whether the Australian Deputy Prime Minister has Omicron or not.”

Australian Deputy PM tests positive for Covid

09:22 , Elly Blake

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps cancelled an HS2-related visit to Durham on Thursday after coming into contact earlier in the week with the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, who has since tested positive for coronavirus.

Barnaby Joyce confirmed he tested positive while travelling in Washington DC and is now self-isolating.

Before arriving in the US, he had travelled to London and is believed to have met both Mr Shapps and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab.

Mr Shapps tweeted: “Sorry not to be travelling to @HitachiRailENG in County Durham today to welcome huge new @HS2ltd rolling stock contract.

“Have taken precaution of cancelling visit & have taken PCR test after being in contact with Australian Deputy PM this week – who’s tested positive for Covid.”

Mr Joyce, who is fully vaccinated, said in a Facebook post on Thursday that he had been experiencing mild symptoms and decided to get tested. He said he will remain in isolation while seeking further advice.

Downing Street aide who appeared in leaked video does not answer questions

09:15 , Elly Blake

Senior Downing Street media advier Ed Oldfield has refused to respond to questions, after he was seen joking about the alleged Downing Street Christmas party with Allegra Stratton, who resigned yesterday.

People should be ‘diligent’ when socialising - Angela Rayner

08:54 , Elly Blake

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said people should be “diligent” when getting together in groups, and test themselves for Covid-19 beforehand.

Asked if she was happy for Christmas parties to go ahead, Ms Rayner told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think people are looking at this now and they’re looking at whether or not they can get together and how they do that.

“People should be diligent about that. Obviously the more we interact in groups, especially in indoor settings, the more opportunity there is for the virus to spread.

“We’ve been very clear from the Labour Party that if you are going out to an event, a Christmas party or an event, that you should take a test beforehand and therefore you’ll know that you’re safe and you’re keeping other people safe.”

Let’s re-cap on yesterday

08:43 , Elly Blake

Yesterday saw a flurry of events in Westminster.

First, Boris Johnson “unreservedly” apologised for the leaked video showing No 10 aides laughing about a “fictional” Christmas Party.

The Prime Minister said he was “furious” when he saw the video and has ordered a full-scale investigation into the incident.

One of the people that appeared in the video, the former Press Secretary Allegra Stratton, resigned in a teary statement outside her house.

She said she would regret her comments for the “rest of her days”.

Then, later on, the Prime Minister plummeted England into Plan B measures - which will see millions return to working from home and Covid passports being reintroduced.

Face masks are also now mandatory in more settings such as theatres and cinemas.

Read more here.

‘Loss of trust in government’ - public health expert

08:27 , Elly Blake

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, told BBC Breakfast that “despite the fact that people are tired and despite the fact that people are having a hard time or suffering, genuinely suffering psychologically and economically and with their health, still, by and large, the levels of adherence are very high indeed.

“And people have been following the science. The Government hasn’t always been doing so,” the professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews added.

“What you see when you look at public attitudes, and when you look at public behaviour, is it tracks the state of the pandemic.

“So, when there are more infections and when there is a problem, people, number one, are more likely to adhere, and number two, are likely to be ahead of the Government in calling for action to be taken.

“Now, of course, in a national crisis, you want the Government centre stage, leading and guiding us through the crisis, and the problem is there is a loss of trust in the Government.”

Omicron will have ‘a very large peak’ - Sage member

08:15 , Elly Blake

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) from University College London, told Sky News the “virus is moving very fast so it’s important that we react to that fast”.

He said a doubling time of every two to three days was “very fast” and “you’ll get a very large peak”.

“And it’s a bit like if you think of a month’s worth of rain falling in a few days, that leads to flooding and it’s a similar type of scenario… we can reduce that by reducing social mixing and allow time to slow the virus down and get vaccine into more people’s arms.”

He said Plan B measures will “slow the spread” but “it’s not going to turn it around”, adding: “I think you would need much more severe restrictions to turn it around, but I think what the encouraging thing is that we’ve started to see, through some of the laboratory data, is sort of that third dose of vaccine is really providing much better immunity, whereas just with the two doses, it’s not really so good.

“So this idea of slowing it down… more social distancing, not going to work if you don’t have to, not going on public transport to go to work when you don’t have to, will make a difference.

“I think it’s very difficult to predict whether that’s going to be enough but I think it’s an essential first move.”

PM has ‘undermined’ Covid efforts - Angela Rayner

08:10 , Elly Blake

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has criticised the Prime Minister for undermining the country’s efforts in the fight against Covid-19.

07:16 , Elly Blake

Business leaders are worried about the impact Plan B measures will have on certain sectors.

With the spread of the Omicron variant in the UK, the government has said that from December 10 face masks will become compulsory in most public indoor venues, other than hospitality. From December 13, a return to work from home where possible guidance will come in.

The latter decision is seen as blow for central London at a time when footfall had been improving after a tough period for businesses that saw the number of workers and shoppers plunge in the City and West End.

Read more here.

Leaked No 10 video ‘upset me’ - Health Secretary

07:12 , Elly Blake

Sajid Javid is doing the media rounds on Thursday morning, after snubbing them yesterday following the fallout of the now infamous leaked No 10 video.

He said seeing the leaked footage of Downing Street aides laughing about a “fictional” Christmas party “upset me”, which is why he pulled out of doing media appearances.

When asked if a party did take place, he said: “The truth is I don’t know. I have been provided reassurances, like the Prime Minister, that rules have been followed”.

He said he “did not know” why former press secretary Allegra Stratton had resigned but that an investigation, led by the Cabinet Secretary, would give answers.

Mr Javid said, “I understand the anger about that video” but it is right having a “flexible response” to the pandemic.

The Health Secretary also said that while Plan B measures were necessary, mandatory vaccination “wouldn’t work”.

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