Many constituents have contacted me about the government implementing winter Plan B to tackle the new Omicron virus variant. To assist others this is a quick guide to some of the most common questions asked.
Why are we re-introducing some Covid restrictions?
The Omicron variant is spreading extremely fast in the UK. down the spread of infection through Plan B helps buy time so we have a better idea of how transmission of the Omicron variant will develop. Daily the Government is considering four key factors:
- the efficacy of vaccines and boosters;
- severity of disease;
- extent of transmissibility;
- rate of hospitalisation.
At the moment we are making decisions with very limited information, but new data on these variables is coming in every day, from the UK, South Africa and around the world. We need to prepare for a potential scenario where many workforces are affected by too many people being off sick with Covid at the same time.
What are these further restrictions to our everyday lives?
These measures are limited in nature, in response to the current increase in cases, and avoid a full lockdown. There are no business closures and no restrictions on social gatherings. Work from home is for guidance only – there is no mandatory “stay at home” order. The only legal restrictions are mandatory face masks in most indoor public places and requiring proof of a negative test or double vaccination to enter some venues (specifically nightclubs and mass events, but not pubs or restaurants).
How long will these additional restrictions last week?
The regulations ensure these measures won’t be in place longer than necessary. These regulations automatically expire after 6 weeks, (on 26 January, having come into force on 10 and 15 December). The Government will review the measures after 3 weeks and update the House of Commons as soon as it returns in the New Year. If we can end these measures earlier than 26 January, we will.
Why are you not introducing vaccine passports?
We listened to concerns in Parliament and we are not proceeding with vaccine passports as originally intended in Plan B – instead negative tests will be sufficient. Anyone will be able to attend mass events and nightclubs if they show proof of a negative lateral flow test, regardless of vaccination status. Unvaccinated people can get lateral flow tests for free from gov.uk or pharmacies and take them at home. People who have had two vaccine doses won’t need to take a test. Boosters are not required and under-18s are exempt.
How are other countries reacting to a new wave of the virus? Are we over-reacting?
Even with Plan B, we still have far fewer restrictions than most of Europe. In response to Omicron, Denmark has closed schools, Norway has imposed legal limits on gatherings, and Ireland has closed nightclubs, introduced the rule of 6 in hospitality and limited visitors to private homes. In response to Delta, Germany has locked down the unvaccinated population and proposed mandatory vaccination, Austria is emerging from a full lockdown, and France has closed nightclubs and requires health passes for hospitality. We’ve been able to introduce fewer restrictions than these countries because of the success of our vaccine procurement and rollout.
Will the vaccine programme stop this wave?
Our exit strategy for this pandemic is vaccine. Scientists are confident that, while 2 doses of vaccine are likely to be less effective against Omicron, the boosters will still provide at least some protection. That is why the Prime Minister announced another step-up in the rollout of the vaccination programme. In the medium term, vaccines will be reformulated to tackle specific variants, and “multi-valent” vaccines will be able to take on multiple variants.
What’s all the worry when the evidence suggests the Omicron symptoms are “far milder”?
It would be very good news if Omicron is less severe, though there isn’t enough current evidence to prove this. Previously in the pandemic, infections among young people have always spread to older people, before then leading to higher hospitalisations and deaths.
Even if Omicron is milder, the danger remains that if Omicron spreads so much more quickly – because it’s intrinsically more transmissible, or it escapes immunity, or a combination of the two – that so many people get sick at the same time and hospitals can’t cope with the flood of patients.