Britain could tighten COVID restrictions ahead of Christmas amid the Omicron spike

LONDON – The UK Health Secretary has refused to rule out stricter COVID-19 restrictions before Christmas amid the rapid surge in infections and ongoing uncertainty about the Omicron variant.

Health Minister Sajid Javid said Sunday the government was assessing the rapidly changing situation and urged the public to be careful with scientists reviewing the data. Much is still unknown about the highly transmissible new variant, even if hospitals prepare for an increase in infections, he told the BBC.

“I don’t think there are guarantees with this pandemic,” replied Javid when asked about the potential for new restrictions. “At this point we just have to keep an eye on everything.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson reintroduced the rules that require face masks in stores last week, instructing them to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test before entering nightclubs and other crowded venues. He has campaigned for a program based on vaccines, an operation that resulted in 830,000 booster syringes being given on Saturday alone.

Vaccination sites are to be operated 12 hours a day, seven days a week with shopping malls, cathedrals and football stadiums to become mass vaccination centers. Some websites work 24 hours a day to make things easier for shift workers.

However, the government’s scientific advisors believe this will not be enough and, according to leaked minutes, have recommended wider restrictions to a meeting of the BBC’s Emergency Scientific Advisory Group to prevent overburdening UK hospitals.

“We can’t wait for hospital stays to go through the roof before we do something about it, because then it’s too late,” Professor David Spiegelhalter told Sky News.

The British Medical Association warns that by Christmas Day nearly 50,000 doctors, nurses and other National Health Service staff in England could have Covid-19 if no additional measures are taken. Johnson’s Conservative government needs further action beyond trying to get the vaccine out of the situation, said Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the association’s council.

“The reality is that MPs (lawmakers) broke up at Christmas and brutally exposed the NHS to the consequences of rising caseloads and without the constraints needed to get them under control,” said Nagpaul. “Doctors are incredibly concerned not only about the potential impact this could have on hospital stays, but also what it would mean for patient care across the NHS if we made large sections of the staff sick.”

The government reported 82,886 more laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases in one day on Sunday. With over 147,000 deaths, the UK already has the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities in Europe after Russia.

Nations across Europe are moving fast to reintroduce tougher measures to contain a new wave of COVID-19 infections triggered by the Omicron variant. The Dutch government launched a tough nationwide lockdown from Sunday to contain the steep rise in infections, and alarmed ministers in France, Germany, Austria and Cyprus have tightened travel restrictions.

Ireland imposed a 8 p.m. curfew on pubs and bars and limited participation in indoor and outdoor events. Paris has canceled its New Years Eve fireworks.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan underscored concerns about the rising COVID-19 cases and their potential to overwhelm the health system by explaining a serious incident on Saturday, a move that will allow local councils in the UK capital to become more closely involved coordinate with the emergency services.

It happened the same day demonstrators marched in London to denounce the new restrictions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported Saturday that Omicron was found in 89 countries. It is said that COVID-19 cases with the variant will double every 1.5 to 3 days in locations with community broadcast.

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