Hopes are high for happy New Year! With Parliament away, time is running out for MPs to impose curbs

Booster rollout to carry on over Christmas 

People will be able to get a Covid booster vaccine on Christmas Day, NHS England has announced as part of increased efforts to top-up protection against the Omicron variant.

The rollout will carry on during Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, with around 200,000 appointments for a third dose still available across the country over the festive period.

The health service said its ‘jingle jab’ campaign will see NHS staff and volunteers administer doses at scores of local vaccination sites including town halls and local pharmacies.

NHS England advised booking in advance but said there will be options available for people without appointments across the country, including in Eastbourne, Hartlepool, Croydon and Dewsbury.

Experts have warned that while a first or second dose can help, only boosters provide the maximum level of protection against Omicron.

Dr Emily Lawson, head of the NHS Covid vaccination programme, said: ‘We’ve seen record after record broken in the run-up to the festive season and I want to thank every NHS staff member and volunteer whose goodwill and determination to protect their communities will keep the booster rollout going this Christmas weekend.

‘This Christmas, before sitting down to your dinner with your family, I would encourage anyone not already boosted to come forward, book an appointment and get the gift of a jab.’

New Year’s Eve celebrations are likely to be free from legally-binding coronavirus curbs, sources revealed last night – as Boris Johnson used his Christmas message to reiterate a plea for people to get booster jabs.

Despite fears that England would follow in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales by announcing harsher restrictions for the end of the year, families now may be able to start planning ways to ring in 2022.

It comes after a key Government report revealed yesterday that Omicron is up to 70 per cent less likely to cause hospital admission than Delta – though SAGE warned it may need to be 90 per cent milder to avoid the NHS coming under unsustainable pressure. 

Multiple sources said last night that time was running out to recall Parliament, with the Government vowing to give MPs a vote if more stringent measures are needed over the Christmas recess. Preliminary data has not yet been sufficient to justify further curbs, however.

Ministers remain anxious that hospital admissions are rising and the transmissibility of Omicron could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed. But they have been buoyed by studies suggesting the variant is less severe than previous coronavirus strains.

Last night a Cabinet source said that ‘with every day that goes by, it becomes less likely’ that Parliament will be recalled before New Year’s Eve. 

They said that with the post-Christmas bank holidays and 48-hour delay to recalling Parliament, it was ‘possible’ but unlikely that MPs would be ordered back.

‘Especially considering the amount of time needed for internal decisions to be made in Government before a recall is made,’ they added. 

Another said: ‘Colleagues would not vote in our favour if we cut short their Christmas break.’

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister will encourage people across the UK to get their booster jabs in his Christmas message this year, describing it as a ‘wonderful’ gift to their families.

Boris Johnson will also say today that the pandemic is far from over, as ‘Omicron is surging’, and will pay tribute to the work of NHS staff.

It comes as:

  • UK fails to hit 1m booster jabs a day target AGAIN with 840,000 delivered and risks missing goal of giving third dose to every adult by New Year; 
  • Two-thirds of new Covid hospital patients in England only tested positive AFTER being admitted for a different illness;
  • Some 12% of ambulance staff and one in seven doctors are off and Tube line is closed until 2022 after 500 TfL staff are struck down by Covid; 
  • Family, friends and housemates turn on each other for ‘ruining’ their festivities as they are struck down with illness just days before Christmas;
  • A man is arrested after 2,000 sign up on Facebook for ‘Hogmanay party at Nicola Sturgeon’s house’;
  • Covid cases in South Africa super-mutant ground zero Gauteng are rapidly falling just a month into its outbreak 

New Year’s Eve celebrations are likely to be free from legally-binding coronavirus curbs, sources revealed last night. Pictured: crowds celebrate New Years Eve in London (stock image)

Pictured: Fireworks explode over Elizabeth Tower housing Big Ben clock to celebrate New Year

Pictured: Fireworks explode over Elizabeth Tower housing Big Ben clock to celebrate New Year

What were the key findings of the UKHSA report on Omicron? 

  • Omicron is between 50 and 70 per cent less likely to cause hospital admission than Delta
  • The new strain is also between 31 and 45 per cent less likely to result in A&E attendance
  • Immunity to symptomatic disease from boosters drops off between 15 and 20 per cent more 10 days after a jab
  • But experts predict immunity to severe disease and hospitalisation will last longer from boosters
  • Omicron causes more reinfections than Delta, with 9.5 per cent of all cases in people who had previously had the virus 
  • Of the 132 hospital patients who were infected with Omicron as of December 20, 17 had received a booster vaccine, 74 people had two doses and 27 people were not vaccinated.

Downing Street is awaiting more data before making a final decision on whether to impose further restrictions, but could instead issue guidance – as it has done for Christmas.

A Government source said last night: ‘It is more complicated to put things in law, but it is still possible – though you would obviously need quite strong data to justify doing that.’

In a video message, Boris Johnson will today say: ‘After two years of this pandemic, I can’t say that we are through it. How can I? When Omicron is surging… we must together try to stop the spread of this new variant.

‘We must test ourselves and take extra care when meeting elderly or vulnerable relatives. We know that things remain difficult.

‘But for millions of families up and down the country, I hope and believe that this Christmas is, and will be, significantly better than the last, in this vital respect.’

He praised those who are ‘selflessly self-isolating’ over the festive period to keep others safe and added: ‘Though the time for buying presents is theoretically running out, there is still a wonderful thing you can give your family and the whole country… and that is to get that jab, whether it is your first or second, or your booster.’

Former Sage scientist Sir Jeremy Farrar said yesterday it was ‘very reasonable to pause, assess updated data after Christmas before deciding what if any measures are needed to ensure NHS, schools, work places, infrastructure can function through January’.

There had been speculation that ministers could impose a ‘circuit breaker’ after Christmas, but Tory MPs last night urged him to resist such a move.

Former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers said: ‘Whilst people need to exercise caution and common sense over New Year, it is not clear further restrictions are needed.’

There had been speculation that ministers could impose a ‘circuit breaker’ bank of measures after Christmas, but Tory MPs last night urged the Prime Minister (pictured) to resist the move

There had been speculation that ministers could impose a ‘circuit breaker’ bank of measures after Christmas, but Tory MPs last night urged the Prime Minister (pictured) to resist the move

Ministers reportedly remain anxious that hospital admissions are increasing and the transmissibility of Omicron variant could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed in the new year

Ministers reportedly remain anxious that hospital admissions are increasing and the transmissibility of Omicron variant could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed in the new year

Hospitality backlash as Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford are accused of ‘pressing the panic button’ on tough new Covid curbs as SNP shuts nightclubs in Scotland 

Hospitality bosses last night accused Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford of ‘pressing the panic button’ on tough new Covid curbs as frustration grows over inconsistent rules across Britain.

Scotland’s First Minister has faced a backlash over her latest restrictions, which will effectively ban football fans from games, while also ruling out large Hogmanay celebrations, limiting pubs to table service only and shutting nightclubs.

Similar measures have been introduced in Wales as well, despite the release of studies suggesting Omicron is less likely to lead to serious illness than previous variants. 

Their approach contrasts with that taken in England, where Health Secretary Sajid Javid this morning hailed the ‘reassuring’ new data that suggested Omicron presented a 40% lower risk of overnight hospital admissions than other variants.

He also confirmed no new restrictions would be announced in England until at least next week

Donald MacLeod MBE, owner of the Garage and Cathouse nightclubs in Glasgow, slammed the ‘Grinch’ SNP leader.

‘The damage was done three weeks ago when Public Health Scotland started scaring everybody and saying Omicron was going to wipe out the human race,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One. 

‘I must say I prefer the way that Boris and Westminster have dealt with it, looking at the evidence before pressing any panic buttons. 

‘This will decimate the industry. And what’s really galling is that today Nicola Sturgeon said ”right that’s me off work, we’re going to be off for the holidays”. 

‘Meanwhile, I’ve got 150 staff who are going to be worried sick about their jobs, as well as suppliers and freelancers who are in bits. That’s a disgrace.’ 

Another contrasted Mr Johnson’s position to that of Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford, who has introduced fresh restrictions from Boxing Day. ‘At the moment it looks relatively encouraging. If he holds his nerve, we could be okay.

‘That, of course, is very much unlike what is happening here in Wales, where Drakeford is in a complete flap,’ the MP said.

Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have all announced extra restrictions to tackle Omicron.

The Scottish government has closed nightclubs for at least three weeks from December 27. They have been told they can open with social distancing and table service, meaning they would be operating more like bars.

The change will infuriate the hospitality sector north of the border. The rules will affect about 150 clubs.

At football matches in Scotland fans chanted abuse at first minister Nicola Sturgeon over rules that will effectively ban them from games. A crowd at a game between Hibernian and Aberdeen chanted, ‘Sturgeon, get tae f***’.

Others held a banner saying ‘open your homes for COP26, closed doors for fans, f*** SNP’ – a reference to the climate change conference, which some blame for fuelling Covid cases.

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said Miss Sturgeon’s restrictions ‘will be another hammer blow for employers and Scotland’s economy’.

The row over restrictions came as a key Government report revealed that Omicron is up to 70 per cent less likely to cause hospital admission than Delta.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid hailed the evidence from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) – the fourth study to show the strain causes less severe illness. 

The agency’s findings are consistent with studies by Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh, offering a more optimistic figure for reduced severity, but experts warned the strain does cause a steeper drop-off in immunity ten days after a booster vaccine.

Mr Javid said the emerging findings on severity were ‘encouraging’ after Downing Street confirmed that there will be no more announcements on toughening rules until next week.

But he stressed that the rapid spread of the variant will still pose a serious threat and huge numbers of cases would mean ‘significant hospitalisations’.  

Despite the morale-boosting evidence, however, daily Covid cases spiked again on Thursday, with hospitalisations rising by a fifth in a week, amid scientists’ warnings that the UK is still in the ‘danger zone’.  

Cases hit a high for the second day running, with 119,789 reported in 24 hours — up 35 per cent on last Thursday and putting a dampener on hopes that the variant could be less devastating than initially feared.  

NHS pressure ‘might be unsustainable’ unless Omicron is 90% milder’ 

Omicron might need to be 90 per cent milder than Delta to avoid the NHS coming under unsustainable pressure, SAGE has warned despite studies showing the strain is 45 per cent weaker.

In minutes published today, No10’s top scientists said if Omicron doubles every two days – like modelling estimates – there could still be thousands of hospitalisations this winter even if the strain is slightly weaker.

This could only be avoided, they said, with more curbs, ‘significant behaviour change’, or if the variant cut the risk of severe disease by 90 per cent.

The meeting took place on December 20, and it was possible that the scientists had not seen an Imperial College London study released yesterday showing Omicron was 45 per cent less likely to cause severe disease.

The minutes read: ‘In the absence of further interventions or significant behaviour change, intrinsic severity would need to be greatly reduced (by around 90 per cent) for hospitalisations to not reach the levels of previous peaks unless the wave peaks early for other reasons.’

Gloomy SAGE estimates have repeatedly come under fire in recent days, after the committee suggested deaths could peak at 6,000 this winter. Last year they reached 1,300 at the peak.

It comes after three major studies in England, Scotland and South Africa confirmed Omicron is milder than Delta and far less likely to put someone in hospital.

One paper by ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson found the mutant strain was up to 45 per cent less likely to lead to hospitalisation than Delta, based on 300,000 people in England.

Latest hospitalisations ticked up to 1,004, marking the first time they had reached four figures since early November.

Another 147 Covid deaths were recorded which was barely a change from last week, but these are lagging indicators because of the time taken for someone who catches the virus to fall severely ill. There were 16,817 further cases of Omicron confirmed, bringing the total to 90,906. 

Meanwhile, there were warnings from SAGE that Omicron might need to be 90 per cent milder than Delta to avoid the NHS coming under unsustainable pressure.

In minutes published on Thursday, No10’s top scientists said if Omicron doubles every two days – like modelling estimates – there could still be thousands of hospitalisations this winter even if the strain is slightly weaker.

This could only be avoided, they said, with more curbs, ‘significant behaviour change’, or if the variant cut the risk of severe disease by 90 per cent.

The meeting took place on December 20, and it was possible that the scientists had not seen an Imperial College London study released yesterday showing Omicron was 45 per cent less likely to cause severe disease.

The minutes read: ‘In the absence of further interventions or significant behaviour change, intrinsic severity would need to be greatly reduced (by around 90 per cent) for hospitalisations to not reach the levels of previous peaks unless the wave peaks early for other reasons.’

Gloomy SAGE estimates have repeatedly come under fire in recent days, after the committee suggested deaths could peak at 6,000 this winter. Last year they reached 1,300 at the peak.

It comes after three major studies in England, Scotland and South Africa confirmed Omicron is milder than Delta and far less likely to put someone in hospital.

One paper by ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson found the mutant strain was up to 45 per cent less likely to lead to hospitalisation than Delta, based on 300,000 people in England.

Meanwhile, NHS England has announced that people will be able to get a Covid booster vaccine on Christmas Day as part of increased efforts to top-up protection against the Omicron variant.

The rollout will carry on during Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, with around 200,000 appointments for a third dose still available across the country over the festive period.

The health service said its ‘jingle jab’ campaign will see NHS staff and volunteers administer doses at scores of local vaccination sites including town halls and local pharmacies.

NHS England advised booking in advance but said there will be options available for people without appointments across the country, including in Eastbourne, Hartlepool, Croydon and Dewsbury.

Experts have warned that while a first or second dose can help, only boosters provide the maximum level of protection against Omicron.

Dr Emily Lawson, head of the NHS Covid vaccination programme, said: ‘We’ve seen record after record broken in the run-up to the festive season and I want to thank every NHS staff member and volunteer whose goodwill and determination to protect their communities will keep the booster rollout going this Christmas weekend.

‘This Christmas, before sitting down to your dinner with your family, I would encourage anyone not already boosted to come forward, book an appointment and get the gift of a jab.’

The push over the festive period comes after a bumper weekend of 1.5 million doses and a record-breaking week for booster jabs. On Wednesday, 1.06 million vaccines were administered, the highest number ever – 968,665 of which were top-up doses.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid paid tribute to NHS staff and volunteers giving up their time with family and friends to help the booster rollout over Christmas.

He said: ‘Thank-you for everything that you’ve done and everything that you’re doing – this Christmas and all year round.

‘You continue to be the very best of us – you achieve phenomenal things and I’m proud to call you colleagues.’

NHS England chief Amanda Pritchard praised the ‘extraordinary team effort’ of health service staff in the face of Omicron.

‘I know it is a worrying time professionally and personally for everyone, and that many colleagues are drained after such a gruelling period,’ she said.

‘The NHS is nothing without its incredible staff. This time, thanks to NHS staff and volunteers, we are armed with the protection offered by first, second and booster doses.’

What are the coronavirus rules in Wales, Scotland and England? 

Boris Johnson, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have all adopted different approaches to tackling the spread of coronavirus over the coming weeks. 

Below is a breakdown of the guidance and rules in each country. 

Wales 

The Welsh Government has advised people to limit their contacts over Christmas and stressed that meeting outdoors is safer than indoors. 

Mr Drakeford today unveiled a raft of measures which will come into effect on Boxing Day.

A two metre social distancing rule will apply in most public settings, the rule of six will apply in pubs and restaurants and all hospitality venues will have to require customers to wear a mask at all times apart from when seated. 

Hospitality venues will also have to return to table service-only and take the contact details of customers.   

Large public events will be banned, with a limit of 30 people indoors and 50 people outdoors. 

There will be a new separate offence to stop house parties, with a limit of 30 people imposed.       

The Welsh Government is not imposing rules on families mixing but is advising them to limit the number of people visiting and to take a lateral flow test before doing so. 

Scotland 

Ms Sturgeon has not asked people to cancel their Christmas plans but has urged them to reduce their contacts as much as possible.

Yesterday she announced new curbs for after Christmas Day, with attendance limits being placed on large events for a three week period from Boxing Day. 

Indoor standing events will be limited to 100 people, indoor seated events will be limited to 200 and for outdoor events it will be 500 seated or standing.

This will make football matches and other sporting events effectively spectator-free. 

From December 27 there will be a table service-only requirement imposed on hospitality venues, also lasting for an initial three week period, as well as a requirement for one metre social distancing between groups.   

From the same date the Scottish Government is advising people to return to limiting their social contacts as much as possible.

England

Mr Johnson last night said there will be no new curbs imposed in England between now and Christmas Day, as he gave the green light to people to proceed with their plans. 

However, he warned that the UK Government is tracking the spread of Omicron ‘hour by hour’ and is ready to act after December 25 if necessary.      

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