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Boris refuses to rule out tougher Covid curbs at Christmas

Boris Johnson (pictured in front of the Downing Street tree) today refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs at Christmas

Boris Johnson today refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs at Christmas, merely insisting the festive season will be 'better' than last year.

The PM dodged when he was asked if he was certain the alarming spread of the Omicron variant would not require harsher restrictions.

'This Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas,' he said during a visit to Merseyside. The tighter rules on masks and isolation are due to be reviewed by December 18 - meaning that people might not know until a week before Christmas Day what limits they face. 

Whitehall sources have suggested there is little prospect of the restrictions being loosened before the New Year, as scientists try to establish the scale of the threat.   

There are warnings today that the incoming Omicron wave could be as bad or worse for the NHS than the second coronavirus peak last winter even if the super-mutant variant is weaker than its predecessors.

Real-world data suggests the highly-evolved variant is three-and-a-half times more likely to infect people than Delta because of its combination of vaccine resistance, increased infectiousness and antibody escape.

There have been only 246 official Omicron cases confirmed in the UK so far, but there are likely more than a thousand already, according to Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia.

Professor Hunter said he expected it to become the dominant variant 'probably within the next weeks or a month', based on how rapidly it is outpacing Delta in the South African epicentre.

In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent

Total Covid cases are rising fastest in London and the South East of England with most of the Omicron infections linked to travellers flying back into the UK

Mr Johnson was asked this morning whether the government had acted too late in demanding travellers to the UK take pre-departure tests.

'No, I think what we're doing is responding to the pandemic,' he said.

'We were the first country in the world to take decisive measures to tackle Omicron. We put about 10 countries automatically, immediately, on to the red list and we said that anybody coming from any country in the world would have to quarantine for a couple of days.

'We're now going further and toughening those measures up as we see the spread of Omicron around the world.

'I don't think we need to change the overall guidance and advice we're giving about Omicron in this country. We're still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is, what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalisations.'   

Emergency regulations last week reintroduced mandatory masks until December 21 to help slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

A final decision on whether to extend their use may not be taken until as late as December 18.

But Whitehall sources said it was likely masks would stay mandatory for at least another three weeks to give scientists more time to assess the threat posed by Omicron.

Other restrictions, such as travel tests and compulsory ten-day quarantine for those in close contact with an Omicron case, are also set to be extended.

However, Mr Johnson is thought to be keen to resist moving to the Government's Plan B until at least the New Year. 

That contingency plan would involve the use of vaccine passports and ordering millions to work from home. 

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab yesterday urged people to press ahead with their plans for the festive season, saying it was 'going to be a great Christmas'. 

A Whitehall source said: 'In terms of Plan B, we are not there yet. The ambition is that people can have a much more normal Christmas than last year.

'That depends on what the data shows about the new variant. But certainly the hope is that things stay as they are in the next couple of weeks.' 

Mr Raab urged people to get their booster jabs, saying it was the most important measure in heading off further restrictions.

But he said ministers did not want to follow Germany in making vaccinations mandatory. 

And he ruled out restricting medical treatment for the unvaccinated, despite warnings from the medical profession that their needs are crowding out other vital care. 

Nicki Credland, chairman of the British Association of Critical Care Nurses, told The Sunday Times: 'All nurses understand they have to provide non-judgmental care.

'But what we find difficult is that giving care to patients who have chosen not to be vaccinated has a knock-on effect on other patients.

'We are still human beings and we still get angry at things that we think aren't just.'

Her comments came after figures revealed more than 90 per cent of Covid patients needing the most specialist care have not been vaccinated. Doctors have warned that some transplant surgery is not going ahead and that vital cancer operations are being delayed.

Mr Raab told Times Radio: 'I would not countenance some sort of suggestion that we would refuse access to vital services for people who have not had a jab.'