Covid cases jumped 6 per cent today, breaching 50,000 for the fourth time in a week, as Omicron's grip on the UK continues to tighten.
Government figures show there were 51,342 new positive tests over the last 24 hours, up 6.1 per cent on last Wednesday's 48,374 and comes as the country stares down the barrel of tighter pandemic restrictions.
SAGE has warned ministers that Omicron hospital admissions could breach 1,000 a day in England by the end of the year without tougher restrictions to stem the spread of the super-mutant Covid variant.
In a move that could bounce No10 into activating its winter 'Plan B', the expert panel said it is 'highly likely' Omicron will make up the majority of British infections within 'a few weeks' and put 'unsustainable pressure' on the NHS.
Leaked minutes from SAGE's emergency meeting today showed that the group also expect the highly-evolved strain to trigger several thousand admissions per day at a peak in January if it is allowed to spread unchecked.
The 'Covid O' Cabinet committee has met for crunch talks this afternoon and Boris Johnson is expected to sign off on plans for a blanket order to work from home where possible, more mask-wearing, vaccine passports and stricter isolation rules for close contacts of infected people either today or tomorrow.
There is growing pressure on the Government to tighten restrictions after the total number of British Omicron cases rose to 568 today, with the highly evolved variant now in every country in the UK and almost every region of England.
Experts warn thousands of cases are flying under the radar because not all samples are analysed for variants and Omicron is estimated to be doubling every two or three days — much faster than when Delta exploded on the scene.
There are currently 757 daily hospital admissions across the UK and 680 in England. SAGE members had previously suggested that 1,200 daily admissions would be the trigger point for more restrictions with Delta.
Not a single one of the UK's confirmed Omicron cases has been hospitalised with the virus but it takes several weeks to fall seriously unwell and there are early indications in South Africa that it might cause milder illness than past variants.
But even if the new strain is milder, experts warn that if it can infect significantly more people than Delta, it will cause bigger surges in hospital admissions than its predecessor.
In the leaked SAGE minutes, seen by the BBC, the group said: 'With the speed of growth seen, decision makers will need to consider response measures urgently to reduce transmission if the aim is to reduce the likelihood of unsustainable pressure on the NHS.'
The scientists insisted that tightening restrictions will give the UK precious time to delay the wave and get more boosters into arms. They said they expect jabs to hold up against severe disease and death.
Earlier, Professor Neil Ferguson, a key SAGE member whose modelling prompted the initial lockdown last spring, today admitted that another full-blown shutdown could be on the cards to tackle Omicron.
He said light measures like WFH 'wouldn't stop it but it could slow it down' and extend the doubling time to five or six days. 'That doesn't seem like a lot, but it actually is potentially a lot in terms of allowing us to characterise this virus better and boost population immunity,' he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
There is growing pressure on the Government to tighten restrictions after the total number of British Omicron cases rose to 568 today, with the highly evolved variant now in every country in the UK and almost every region of England
Boris Johnson (pictured leaving 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons today) is on the verge of bowing to mounting alarm about the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed by bringing in tougher restrictions, likely to include a blanket order to work from home where possible, more mask-wearing and Covid passports
There are currently 757 daily hospital admissions across the UK and 680 in England (England shown above). SAGE members had previously suggested that 1,200 daily admissions would be the trigger point for more restrictions with Delta
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
Infections of the highly evolved variant are doubling every two or three days. The above graph shows how the number of daily cases of Omicron could breach the 100,000 barrier before New Year's Day, if that pace continues
BBC Breakfast today decided to 'empty chair' Sajid Javid for pulling out of national interviews in the wake of the Downing Street party video
What could Plan B entail?
No10 is expected to announce a suite of new measures to stem the spread of Omicron today.
The curbs that could be introduced are:
— Compulsory face masks extended to pubs and restaurants
— Vaccine passports for large events
— Advice to work from home where possible
— Isolation of all contacts of Covid cases
These are the measures that are already in place:
— Compulsory masks in shops and on public transport
— Pre-flight departure tests for all UK arrivals
— PCR test on or before Day 2 for vaccinated arrivals
— 10-day isolation for unvaccinated arrivals
— Day 2 and Day 8 PCR tests for unvaccinated arrivals
— Return of Red List and hotel quarantine for arrivals from countries on list
— Booster vaccine campaign expanded to all adults, dosing gap shortened to three months
Attorney General Suella Braverman was seen going into the building this morning, although it is not clear whether her visit is related.
Mr Javid also entered, ignoring questions about why he ducked interviews.
Conservative MPs have been turning on the premier, with demands for him to provide an 'explanation' and even warnings that misleading parliament on what happened will be a 'resigning matter'. Baroness Warsi, a former Cabinet minister turned critic, said 'every minister, parliamentarian and staffer' at the alleged party 'must resign now'.
One government source told MailOnline that the situation was an 'absolute joke'. 'A friend said to me ''you look like a bunch of c***s''. It was hard to argue.'
BBC Breakfast took the extraordinary step of empty-chairing Mr Javid this morning as vaccines minister Maggie Throup also pulled out of her planned round of regional television interviews. On ITV's Good Morning Britain, host Susanna Reid swiped that the government was 'gaslighting' by pretending there is not any need to answer questions.
The footage of Ms Stratton was filmed on December 22 last year – four days after the alleged 'boozy' party and when London was under strict Tier 3 coronavirus curbs. The revelation follows a week of tortured denials from No 10 that there was a 'party' - even though dozens of staff allegedly exchanged 'secret Santa' gifts and drank past midnight at an event said to have included party games.
It came as new plans for Britons to work from home and for offices to be closed are being drawn up by the Government to curb a surge in Omicron variant case numbers over the festive period - but Tory MPs admitted the 'indefensible' and 'catastrophic' video could mean the public will resist or ignore more restrictions because of a lack of 'moral authority' in No 10.
Some backbenchers have even suggested that Boris Johnson's could be forced to resign unless he 'holds his hands up' because of the video, which calls into question his insistence that all the rules had been followed at the time.
One said of Mr Johnson's leadership: 'I'm tired of it. He has to go. Clean sweep. It's unsustainable'. Another said: 'It confirms my suspicion of the sheer arrogance and hypocrisy of those orchestrating lockdown measures.'
Former minister Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford, demanded an apology. 'I am fuming! My constituents have every right to be angry,' she told Kent Online.
Professor Neil Ferguson warns a full lockdown might be needed to stop Omicron overwhelming NHS
'Professor Lockdown' Neil Ferguson today admitted that another nationwide shutdown could be on the cards to tackle Omicron as he warned the super variant will be dominant before Christmas.
The Government scientist, whose modelling bounced No10 into the original lockdown last spring, said the return of stay-at-home orders 'certainly might be possible' if the mutant strain threatens to overwhelm the NHS.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: 'There is a rationale, just epidemiologically, to try and slow this down, to buy us more time principally to get boosters into people's arms because we do think people who are boosted will have the best level of protection possible, but also to buy us more time to really better characterise the threat.'
Asked outright if a lockdown could be reimposed, he said: 'Clearly if the consensus is it's highly likely that the NHS is overwhelmed then it will be for the Government to decide what to do about that but it's a difficult situation to be in of course. It certainly might be possible at the current time.'
It is unclear how the British public would react to social restrictions over Christmas after fresh allegations surfaced this week that Boris Johnson held a rule-breaking lockdown party in Downing Street last December, when millions of Britons were unable to visit loved ones.
'Their memories of lost loved ones are traumatised knowing that they died alone, first and last Christmases passed by, and many spent what is usually a special day by themselves.
'I am not even going to begin to justify or defend a party in Downing Street. We all deserve a fulsome explanation and apology and swiftly.' Conservative Sir Roger Gale said today that the situation bore 'all the hallmarks of another 'Barnard Castle' moment' - a reference to the Prime Minister's former aide driving 260 miles during strict lockdown conditions last year.
He said: 'This is like something out of The Thick Of It. If you wrote it, people wouldn't believe it. Boris Johnson has always been his own man and done his own thing in his own way. I think he has a certain amount of explaining to do. This is no laughing matter. I want PM to come to the dispatch box and say there either was a party or wasn't. There has to be an explanation by lunchtime today'.
Even Ant and Dec got in on the act last night, mocking Boris Johnson over the Downing Street Christmas party on I'm a Celebrity 2021 and saying: 'Evening Prime Minister… for now.' Police are yet to launch a criminal investigation - but will be reviewing the footage before a decision is taken. It is understood that a senior officer looking at the matter will now consider the contents of the video in the coming days.
'We are aware of footage obtained by ITV News relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at a Government building in December 2020', a Met spokesman said. 'It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations, however the footage will form part of our considerations'.
BBC Radio 4's Today programme said Mr Javid was scheduled to feature this morning, but cancelled after the footage emerged.
Presenter Nick Robinson said: 'We were expecting to speak to the Health Secretary Sajid Javid this morning but we were told just a few minutes after that video emerged that no minister would be available to speak on the programme today.' Mr Javid was also due on outlets such as BBC1, Sky News and Times Radio.
The damning clip, which was leaked to ITV News, shows Ms Stratton and aides joking about cheese and wine and suggesting the 'fictional' event was 'not socially distanced'. Miss Stratton, who is still on the No 10 payroll earning £125,000 a year, was practising for planned TV media briefings, which were later axed.
At the time of the alleged event, on December 18, Christmas parties were outlawed – on pain of £10,000 fines – and many families were even barred from visiting dying loved ones. Mixing indoors with people from other households was banned in the capital.
No 10 was still insisting last night that there had been 'no Christmas party' and that coronavirus rules were followed at all times. But ministers were aghast at the crass video, with one privately describing it as 'appalling'.
Insiders fear the release of the toxic footage could unleash a wave of public anger, similar to the fury over the trip to Barnard Castle by Dominic Cummings at the height of the first lockdown.
A Downing Street insider acknowledged the video was a 'disaster', adding: 'No 10 aides laugh at their party as thousands cry for their dead.'
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisted 'we do follow the rules on Covid' as she was questioned about the alleged party at a Chatham House event.
She said: 'As to alleged events in Number 10, I don't know the detail of what happened.
'I know that the Prime Minister's spokesman answered those questions in detail yesterday and I am sure there will be further discussion of that issue.'
Asked why citizens should trust an administration that did not follow the rules, she added: 'We do follow the rules on Covid.'
But 'I'm not aware of the precise circumstances and I know the Prime Minister's spokesman has addressed that issue'.
One Tory MP told MailOnline that most colleagues were 'waiting to see what the PM says at PMQs'.
'He needs to come out today and just be straightforward and say what happened. Not answering won't work. Maybe they are planning to fire some people.'
The backbencher pointed out that future inquiries will uncover details anyway. 'If you have done something wrong, go to parliament and explain it. You have much more chance of getting away with it.
'The cover-up is the thing that gets you. So you have got to be brutally honest.'
'They won't be the only people to have an illegal party at that time, but you don't have an illegal party in No10 do you?'
The MP also suggested that Mr Cummings and his allies might have been involved in leaking the video. 'It has to be someone senior. Who had them and kept them this long? It does feel like a Cummings operation,' they said.
Becky Kummer, of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: 'There are simply no words to describe how upsetting and shameful it is to hear Boris Johnson's team laughing about breaking the rules they had made, while others followed them and could only say goodbye to their loved ones through a screen. It's the behaviour of people who think they're above us.'
The clip, obtained by ITV news, shows Ms Stratton, then the PM's press secretary, and Ed Oldfield, No10's head of digital, rehearsing a question and answer session in the No9 briefing room.
In it Oldfield asks a question about 'a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night', to which Ms Stratton laughs and replies: 'I went home.'
When he asks if the Prime Minister would condone such a party, Ms Stratton appears unsure how to respond and asks the room: 'What's the answer?'