At his Downing Street press conferences prior to Christmas, the prime minister warned that the new strain is “growing much faster” than the dominant Delta variant and encouraged the British public to get a booster vaccine as a matter of urgency to tackle waning immunity and keep infections low over the festive period.
Nevertheless, total Covid transmission rates in England continued to soar over the Christmas week, hitting a pandemic high of 162,572 new cases on New Year’s Day, according to the UK Health Security Agency.
Meanwhile, the UK as a whole has recorded at least 246,780 confirmed cases of Omicron so far and at least 75 deaths, despite which Mr Johnson has repeatedly declined to take further action to stop the spread, even as a number of NHS trusts report “critical incidents” of staff shortages.
What are the Plan B rules?
Mandatory mask-wearing is in place on public transport, in shops, cinemas, theatres and places of worship but face coverings are not yet required in pubs and restaurants.
Exceptions to the mask rule can be made when eating, drinking, exercising or singing, Mr Johnson has said.
Guidance to work from home where possible has also been in place since Monday 13 December.
The NHS Covid Pass, which can be obtained via the NHS smartphone app by having two vaccines or a negative lateral flow test, is now needed for entry to nightclubs and other large venues as of Wednesday 15 December.
These health certificates are also required for access to unseated indoor venues with more than 500 attendees and outside where there are more than 4,000 people.
Mr Johnson has indicated that the passes process could evolve as the Omicron situation changes, however, commenting: “We will keep this under review as the boosters roll out.”
How long will Plan B rules be in place?
The government has said that its latest measures– which were originally drawn up in September – will be reviewed on 5 January 2022 but, the worse the situation gets, the longer they are likely to be extended.
Have the Plan B rules been approved?
Yes. MPs voted in favour on the measures in the House of Commons on Tuesday 14 December.
Almost 100 Tory rebels did break ranks to oppose the government on the Covid Pass, which some consider an infringement of civil liberties, but the rules passed anyway thanks largely to support from Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which voted broadly in favour after signalling it considered the moves to be in the national interest.
How prevalent is the Omicron variant?
The UK confirmed the first death from the new variant globally on Monday 13 December and has seen at least another 74 fatalities since.
London has been particularly hard hit by the new strain and prompted city mayor Sadiq Khan to declare a major incident.
NHS England meanwhile announced that it has returned to its highest level of emergency preparedness, level four national incident, meaning that the NHS response to omicron will be coordinated as a national effort rather than led by individual trusts.
Will Plan B slow the spread of Omicron?
Scientists advising the government have said again and again that strong measures are needed to slow down the spread of the variant but appear to have met with political opposition from senior Cabinet members concerned about doing further damage to the economy and alienating support.
Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, whose data was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said last month that “case numbers of Omicron are doubling at least every three days, maybe even every two days at the moment, so it’s accelerating very fast”.
He said lockdowns are a possibility and cannot be ruled out but the working from home guidance could help to slow the spread.
“There is a rationale, just epidemiologically, to try and slow this down, to buy us more time principally to get boosters into people’s arms, because we do think people who are boosted will have the best level of protection possible, but also to buy us more time to really better characterise the threat,” Professor Ferguson said.
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