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Boris Johnson Issues Work From Home Guidance to Curb Omicron in U.K.

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 12/8/2021 Joe Mayes

(Bloomberg) --

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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tightened pandemic rules to curb the spread of the omicron variant, advising people to work from home and mandating the use of so-called vaccine passports in large venues.

“It’s become increasingly clear that omicron is growing much faster than the previous delta variant,” Johnson said at a televised press conference on Wednesday, announcing the measures for England. It’s the “proportionate and responsible thing to do to move to Plan B,” he said.

— Bloomberg UK (@BloombergUK) December 8, 2021

The prime minister ruled out following other countries in making coronavirus vaccinations mandatory, though he warned that a “national conversation” may be needed to avoid restrictions in future if people refuse to get vaccinated.

Johnson Apologizes Over Christmas Party as Covid Rules Loom

The new measures reflect concerns the new Covid-19 strain could overwhelm hospitals, given the U.K. has recorded a high daily caseload for months even before omicron emerged. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already had tighter restrictions in place before Johnson’s announcement.

England’s Plan B:
Starting Monday: work from home if you can
Starting Friday: masks will be compulsory in most public indoor venues, including theaters and cinemas -- except when eating or drinking
In a week’s time: NHS Covid Pass mandatory for entry into large venues
Pingdemic: Daily testing will be introduced for contacts instead of isolation

While Plan B falls far short of the lockdowns imposed previously, they still represent a significant change in approach and are politically risky for Johnson. The government had hoped an accelerated program of vaccine booster shots would mean no new restrictions would be needed over the Christmas period, after festivities were banned for many households last year.

The timing is also sensitive as Johnson’s government struggles to handle the backlash over allegations his officials held a rule-breaking party in his Downing Street office last Christmas, which has provoked a public outcry.

Video: Boris Johnson confirms WFH advice and Covid passes for nightclubs (Daily Mail)


Aide Resigns

Johnson’s press secretary on Wednesday denied he attended the event last December, but the prime minister still apologized in the House of Commons after a video emerged showing key aides joking about a party. One of them, Allegra Stratton, later offered her resignation in a tearful statement.

— Bloomberg UK (@BloombergUK) December 8, 2021

The saga has angered even MPs in Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, who warned that the fallout would undermine the Tories ahead of a key parliamentary vote next week. One MP accused Johnson of using tougher Covid rules as a “diversionary tactic.”

With tensions running high, the move to impose new restrictions triggered an immediate pushback. Former business secretary Greg Clark accused the government of “jumping the gun” because hospitalizations are not rising, while Tory MP Esther McVey said Plan B would have an effect on mental health and the economy. Douglas Ross said he would not support vaccine passports.

U.K. Covid Plan B May Cost Economy $2.7 Billion a Month, BE Says

The CBI, Britain’s biggest business lobby group, called the restrictions a “big setback for businesses” and that firms would need help implementing Covid passports. Michael Kill, chief executive officer of the Night Time Industries Association, said the changes are “devastating” for the nightlife sector.

Boris Johnson Leads Coronavirus Press Conference © Photographer: WPA Pool/Getty Images Europe Boris Johnson Leads Coronavirus Press Conference

Rule Plea

Speaking alongside Johnson, England Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty urged people to look beyond the Downing Street controversy and abide by the new measures to prevent the spread of omicron.

“We know that we’re going early now, so as to slow this down at an early stage of events,” Whitty said. “If it’s laid out to people in a way that is reasonable, irrespective of other things, people want to know the logic of why they’re doing it, and we’re trying to do that.”

Johnson had previously said he would wait to see evidence of Omicron’s impact on hospitalizations and deaths before reviewing Britain’s pandemic rules. Wednesday’s announcement comes as the U.K. recorded 131 new confirmed cases of the omicron variant, bringing the total to 568. 

Neil Ferguson, a government scientific advisor whose modeling led to the first pandemic lockdown, said Wednesday that the incidence of the omicron strain is doubling every two to three days in Britain, meaning it will likely become the dominant variant before Christmas.

Johnson said the new measures would be reviewed by early January at the latest. Despite advising people to work from home, he said there is no need for Christmas parties to be canceled.

“On Christmas, the best way to ensure we have a Christmas as close to normal as possible is to get on with Plan B,” he said. 

(Updates with reaction from ninth paragraph)

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