Update on our COVID-19 Response
I wanted to update you on the measures I announced this evening to control the spread of Omicron.
As soon as we learned of the new Omicron variant, this Government acted: introducing targeted and proportionate measures as a precaution, while our scientists discovered more. We are learning more every day and do not yet know Omicron’s severity, its exact rate of transmission, nor indeed the full effectiveness of our vaccines against it. However, it has become increasingly clear that Omicron is growing much faster than the Delta variant, and it is spreading rapidly all around the world. 568 cases have been confirmed through genomic sequencing across every region of the UK, and the true number is certain to be much higher. Most worryingly, there is evidence that the doubling time of Omicron in the UK could be currently between two and three days. While there are some limits to what we can learn from South Africa, not least due to different rates of vaccination and previous infection, we are seeing growth in cases here in the UK that mirrors the rapid increases seen in South Africa. South Africa is also seeing hospitalisations roughly doubling in a week, meaning we cannot yet assume that Omicron is less severe than previous variants.
While the picture may get better, we know that the remorseless logic of exponential growth could lead to a big rise in hospitalisations, and therefore sadly in deaths. That is why it is now the proportionate and responsible thing to move to Plan B in England, whilst continuing to work closely with our colleagues in the Devolved Administrations.
The Government set this plan out to this House in September. It should enable us to slow the spread of the virus, buy ourselves the time to get yet more boosters in more arms, especially in older and more vulnerable people, and understand the answers to the key outstanding questions about Omicron.
First, we will reintroduce the guidance to work from home. Employers should use the rest of this week to discuss working arrangements with employees and from Monday, 13 December employees should work from home if they can. I know this will be hard for many businesses and many of your constituents, but reducing contacts in the workplace will help slow transmission.
Secondly, from this Friday, 10 December we will further extend the legal requirement to wear a face covering to most public indoor venues, including cinemas and theatres. There will be exemptions where it is not practical, such as when eating, drinking, exercising or singing.
Thirdly, we will also make the NHS COVID Pass mandatory for entry into nightclubs, and venues where large crowds gather including unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue with more than 10,000 people. The NHS COVID Pass can still be obtained with two doses but we will keep this under review as the boosters roll out. Having taken clinical advice since the emergence of Omicron, a negative lateral flow test will also be sufficient. As we set out in Plan B, we will give businesses a week’s notice, so this will come into force in a week’s time. This will help to keep these events and venues open at full capacity, while giving everyone who attends them confidence that those around them have done the responsible thing to minimise risk to others.
As Omicron spreads in the community, we will also introduce daily tests for contacts instead of isolation, so we keep people safe while minimising the disruption to daily life. We will take every step to ensure our NHS is ready for the challenges ahead. But the single biggest thing that every one of us can do, is to get our jabs and crucially to get that booster as soon as our turn arrives.
One year to the day since the UK became the first country in the world to administer a COVID-19 vaccine into the arm of Margaret Keenan, we have opened up the vaccine booster to all those over 40, and we are reducing the gap between second dose and booster to a minimum of just three months. Our heroic NHS staff and volunteers have already done almost 21 million boosters, including reaching 84 per cent of all eligible people over 80s.
However, we need to go further and faster still, because our scientists are absolutely confident that your immune response will be stronger if you have been boosted. And please tell your constituents: while they are at it – get the flu jab where they can as well. Let’s once again pull together and do everything we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones this winter – and to reduce the pressures on our NHS.
As we learn more we will be guided by the hard medical data around four key criteria: the efficacy of our vaccines and boosters, the severity of Omicron, the speed of its spread, and the rate of hospitalisations. We will constantly monitor the data and keep it under review. We must be humble in the face of this virus, but if it becomes clear that the boosters are capable of holding this Omicron variant and we have boosted enough people to do the job of keeping Omicron in equilibrium then we will be able to move forward as before.
So please play your part, and encourage your constituents to do so as well. Test regularly and get boosted.