The British government has dropped its light-touch approach to COVID-19 and introduced new measures in an attempt to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, which health officials say is on course to becoming the dominant version of the virus in the U.K. by the end of the month.
For months, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted calls to impose vaccine passports in England or encourage people to work from home. Even mask requirements, though tightened recently, have been scant and limited mainly to public transport. Instead, Mr. Johnson has been banking on vaccines and booster shots to get the country through the winter, in defiance of many health experts who have urged the government to go further.
With the number of Omicron cases increasing by roughly 100 per day this week to 568 in total, Mr. Johnson announced tougher measures Wednesday. Masks will now be mandatory in most indoor settings, and vaccine passports will be required for nightclubs in England and venues that hold large crowds, such as soccer stadiums. Similar rules are already in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“While the picture may get better, and I sincerely hope that it will, we know that the remorseless logic of exponential growth could lead to a big rise in hospitalizations and therefore, sadly, in deaths,” Mr. Johnson said during a news conference. “We must be humble in the face of this virus.”
He added that the measures were still far less restrictive than actions taken by other European governments, many of which recently imposed national lockdowns and curfews. He also said the measures would be reviewed in a month and that the government remained committed to offering a booster shot to every adult by the end of January.
The Omicron variant has been detected in 57 countries so far, according to the World Health Organization, and scientists believe it is more transmissible than its predecessor the Delta variant. Researchers in Britain have calculated that Omicron infections have been doubling every two to three days. On Wednesday the UK Health Security Agency said that if that doubling time continued, the country could “expect to see at least 50 per cent of COVID-19 cases to be caused by the Omicron variant in the next two to four weeks.”
The vast majority of COVID-19 cases in Britain continue to be caused by the Delta variant, and the number of infections has been rising slowly in recent days. The daily total topped 51,000 Wednesday.
The government’s scientific advisers have warned that rising numbers of infections caused by Omicron could lead to as many as 2,000 hospitalizations per day by the end of the month. That’s up from the current level of about 700 but far less than the roughly 3,800 during the peak of the pandemic this past January.
Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, said there was some evidence that hospitalizations in South Africa, where the new variant was first detected, had increased 300 per cent over the past week. However, he and other scientists have cautioned that comparisons among countries can be deceiving given varying rates of vaccination.
There is some hope from early research that vaccines provide good protection against severe illness from Omicron. On Wednesday, Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE released preliminary findings of a study that showed that while Omicron can evade some protection against infection, their vaccine remained effective at preventing severe illness – especially after three doses.
Teresa Lambe, a lead scientific investigator at the University of Oxford, which developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, said vaccines have held up well against all variants so far. “We have yet to come across a variant where we’ve seen an impact on protection against hospitalization and death,” she told a news briefing Wednesday.
Health experts largely welcomed Mr. Johnson’s announcement. “We are relieved the government has finally listened and hope these precautionary measures have not come too late,” said Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents National Health Service hospitals in England.
Some experts questioned the usefulness of vaccine passports, especially given the transmissibility of Omicron. Simon Williams, a senior lecturer in people and organization at Swansea University, said there was “no clear evidence that they have worked to significantly reduce transmission or drive up vaccine uptake.”
Mr. Johnson’s announcement also proved to be something of a diversion from a growing scandal over reports that his office held a Christmas party this past December in violation of pandemic rules that prohibited social gatherings. For days Mr. Johnson denied that a party had taken place.
However, on Wednesday a video emerged showing senior staff members, including government spokeswoman Allegra Stratton, joking about the party during the taping of a mock news conference at Downing Street the past year. The video ramped up criticism of Mr. Johnson, even from fellow Conservative MPs.
By late Wednesday Ms. Stratton had resigned and Mr. Johnson had expressed outrage at the comments in the video. He also ordered the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the alleged festivities but insisted that no rules had been broken. “All the evidence I can see is that people in this building have stayed within the rules,” he said.
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