Covid: Ministers keeping curbs under review as Omicron presents 'very challenging new information'

'The Cobra meeting I’ve just chaired with first ministers of all the devolved administrations was presented with some very challenging new information,' Michael Gove said

New Covid measures will be kept under review, a Cabinet minister has said as he warned that "very challenging new information" had been shared at a UK-wide Cobra meeting called amid the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who is self-isolating after coming into contact with Australia's deputy prime minister who has tested positive for Covid, said the new variant is doubling every two to three days in England, and possibly even faster in Scotland.

He also revealed that 30% of reported cases in London are of the Omicron variant - which has been recorded in 1,265 cases across the UK after an additional 448 cases, the highest daily number so far - were confirmed on Friday.

As fears grow about the spread of the variant, people in Scotland have been urged to cancel Christmas parties and households of people who contract coronavirus will be asked to isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status or a negative PCR test.

When pressed over whether England would adopt tougher curbs than the ones announced under the government's Plan B scenario, Mr Gove refused to rule out further restrictions.

Speaking after the meeting between leaders of the UK nations to discuss Covid-19 data, Mr Gove said the current measures “absolutely” needed to be kept “under review”, but that he felt the approach taken was “proportionate”.

"We have been confronted with genuinely concerning new facts and the facts which show this virus spreading so fast, and especially spreading in a way which means that even those who are double-vaccinated are more likely to succumb to this virus and to find themselves ill, infected and potentially in hospital," he added.

The Cabinet minister said, given those facts, MPs will decide to back the government's plans for Covid measures - on face coverings in more indoor settings, home working where possible and vaccine passports - when it is put to a vote next Tuesday.

However, following on from a week of negative headlines over the No10 Christmas party scandal, Downing Street could face a damaging revolt from dozens of Tory backbenchers who could rebel or abstain against the proposals.

Mr Gove's stark comments come on the day the UK recorded the highest number of new Covid-19 infections in one day, for 11 months. In the 24 hours to 9am on Friday, a further 58,194 positive coronavirus tests were recorded, according to government figures.

Nicola Sturgeon delivers a Covid-19 update statement on the new variant in the main chamber at the Scottish Parliament earlier this week. Credit: PA

The last time a higher daily figure was reported was on January 9, when 59,937 cases were logged.

Amid this backdrop, experts have called on the public to reduce social mixing to allow time for the vaccine booster programme to be expanded- and ultimately reduce pressure on the health service.

"If we want to slow this down and prevent really quite an awful situation in the beginning of next year, then we are, I am afraid, going to have to change our behaviour in terms of social contact as well as wearing masks," Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told ITV News.

'We are going to have to change our behaviour in terms of social contact,' Prof Hayward said

While noting that there is a lot of uncertainty around the modelling on the Omicron variant, he suggested that "stringent" curbs will likely be needed to tackle the variant, which could lead to a rise in hospitalisations if it continues to rapidly spread.

Echoing such concerns, Nicola Sturgeon said the Omicron variant is threatening a "tsunami of infections", with Scotland's first minister warning that the new variant, which has forced a tightening of Covid restrictions, poses a "renewed and very severe challenge".

While it is not yet known if the variant causes more severe illness than previous mutations, scientists have confirmed it is much more transmissible.

Early hospital data from South Africa suggests less than a third of patients admitted for coronavirus during the latest wave linked to the Omicron variant are suffering severe illness.

This is compared with two thirds in the early stages of the last two waves.

The new Omicron Covid variant has led to an increase in infections. Credit: PA

Nonetheless, people across the UK have been told to work from home and venues have been told to require proof of Covid status in a bid to reduce the variant's spread, with Ms Sturgeon saying infections in Scotland could rise as high as 25,000 a day in the worst case scenario.

On Friday, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the UK could see one million Omicron cases by the end of December and the new Covid-19 variant could become the dominant strain of the virus in the country within days.

At a briefing, the UKHSA said analysis of 581 people with confirmed Omicron cases showed the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines provided “much lower” levels of protection against Omicron when compared with the Delta variant which is currently the dominant strain in the UK.

However, scientists did say the early data showed vaccine effectiveness "considerably increased" soon after a booster dose, raising protection to around 70-75%.

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When Boris Johnson brought in new Plan B restrictions, which also extended the mask mandate to most indoor locations, he said he was forced to do so over fears a rise in cases "could lead to big rise in hospitalisations and therefore sadly deaths".

The PM's official spokesperson said there are "no plans" to tighten restrictions in England but added there is an "array, already, of options available to us in terms of what measures we can take to mitigate a growth of any variant or virus".

Ms Sturgeon said she "can't rule out further measures" and the Scottish government will "consider its next steps very carefully" in the wake of the new Omicron variant spreading through the country.

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