The UK government has decided not to impose further COVID-19 lockdown curbs before the New Year in England, even as the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue with party and nightclub bans to contain the spread of the Omicron variant.
After meetings with experts to assess the latest coronavirus data on Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that no additional restrictions will be imposed on the current Plan B measures in place which call for compulsory face coverings, working from home and COVID vaccine certificate checks for large venues.
"We will continue to monitor the data carefully, but there will be no new restrictions introduced in England before the New Year," Johnson tweeted.
"However, I would urge everyone to continue to act cautiously given the rising number of Omicron cases. Most importantly I urge everyone to get their first, second or booster jab without delay to protect yourselves and your loved ones," he said.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid reiterated the message to reporters later, adding that further measures may be needed next month.
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He said: "Of course, people should remain cautious as we approach New Year's celebrations, and you know, take a lateral flow test if that makes sense. Celebrate outside if you can, have some ventilation indoors if you can, please remain cautious. "And when we get into the New Year, of course, we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures but nothing more until then at least."
The announcement has been widely welcomed by the hospitality industry in England, hoping to make the most of the business generated by New Year's eve parties. UK Hospitality Chief Executive Kate Nicholls said the decision to not go beyond Plan B measures in England had been a "pragmatic and proportionate" decision by the government.
"This will give a real lifeline for many who have struggled with the loss of trade in the run-up to Christmas and the loss of new year on top of that would have been devastating for many, she said.
It came as the UK recorded 98,515 coronavirus cases on Monday slightly down from the highs of over 100,000 in previous days. Scientists have expressed cautious hope that infections are slowing down and that fewer people are requiring hospitalisation due to Omicron, which is believed to now make up 90 per cent of all COVID cases in England.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the BBC that in time people with COVID should be allowed to "go about their normal lives" as they would with a common cold.
"If the self-isolation rules are what's making the pain associated with COVID, then we need to do that perhaps sooner rather than later," he said.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said he thought the decision not to introduce new curbs in England before the New Year was "probably fine", with data showing "very low" numbers of vaccinated people in intensive care.
"This is not the same disease as we were seeing a year ago," he said. The Opposition Labour Party has called on the government to publish the advice and data ministers used to decide not to impose further COVID restrictions before 2022.
"With infection rates so high, the government needs to come forward with a plan to enable schools and the NHS [National Health Service] to run effectively through this latest wave," said shadow health secretary Wes Streeting.
"The government should publish, as a matter of urgency, the very latest data on hospitalisations and NHS staff absence rates, as well as up to date advice from SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies], so that the public can be reassured that they are genuinely following the data and scientific advice and that Boris Johnson is not simply capitulating to his own opponents in the Tory party," he said.