UK Covid live: Boris Johnson gives press conference as eight new Omicron cases reported in England

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “UK Covid live: Boris Johnson gives press conference as eight new Omicron cases reported in England” was written by Andrew Sparrow, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 30th November 2021 16.20 UTC

Amanda Pritchard says she is writing to the NHS saying what needs to be done to operationalise the new guidance.

She says people do not need to contact the NHS about boosters; the NHS will contact them when it’s time for their jab, she says.

Sajid Javid says the UK was the first country in the western world to authorise a vaccine for Covid.

And the UK has delivered more booster jabs than any country apart from the US and China.

He thanks all health staff who have made this a success.

They have weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths, he says.

He says the booster dose provides a much higher response than the primary course.

Omicron poses a very high global risk, the WHO has said. He says there have now been 13 confirmed cases in England and nine in Scotland.

The strategy to “buy the time we need to assess this new variant”.

He says the latest developments have been worrying for some people. They have brought back memories of the strain of last winter. But we have one huge advantage we did not have then – the vaccination programme.

This is a national mission, he says. If we want to have the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones, we should get protected, he says.

Johnson says people should avoid trying to book a booster until their age group gets its turn.

He says he will be getting his own booster on Thursday.

Updated

Johnson says all adults to be offered booster vaccine by end of January

Boris Johnson is speaking now at his press conference.

He starts by saying all adults will be offered a booster vaccine by the end of January.

Updated

MPs pass new Covid face mask rules for England by 434 votes to 23

The government has won the vote on passing the new regulations on face coverings by 434 votes to 23 – a majority of 411.

Boris Johnson’s press conference

The Boris Johnson press conference is about to start. He will be appearing with Sajid Javid, the health secretary, and Amanda Pritchard, chief executive officer for NHS England.

Updated

Eight more Omicron cases confirmed in England

Eight more cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in England, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said.

There are in addition to the previous five confirmed cases of the Sars-CoV-2 variant known as B.1.1.529. The total number of confirmed cases in England is now 13.

The new cases include two in Barnet, one in Haringey, one in Liverpool, one in Norfolk, one in Sutton, one in Camden, and one in Westminster.

The individuals that have tested positive and their contacts are all isolating, health officials said. Work is under way to identify any links to travel to Southern Africa.

The UKHSA has now identified cases in the East Midlands, East of England, London and North West. UKHSA is carrying out targeted testing at locations where the positive cases were likely to be infectious.

Nine cases have also been identified in Scotland, with five cases in the Lanarkshire area and four in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, bringing the UK total to 22.

Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of UKHSA, said: “It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally and as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing. That’s why it’s critical that anyone with Covid-19 symptoms isolates and gets a PCR test immediately.”

Updated

In the Commons Maggie Throup, the health minister, has just wound up the debate. She ended with a slightly firmer rebuke to Dr Jenny Harries than she managed at the start of the debate. (See 1.11pm.) She said it was “government that sets policy and guidance” and that that was what the public should follow.

MPs are now voting on the first set of regulations, relating to face coverings. There was very loud cheering “no” cheering from Tory MPs opposed to the measure when Dame Eleanor Laing, the deputy Speaker, called the division.

Yesterday Edward Argar, the health minister, said he did not expect Covid regulations to tighten again before Christmas. And today Boris Johnson said there was no need for rules to change. (See 1.02pm.)

But, according to a YouGov poll, two thirds of people do expect further restrictions to be introduced within the next four weeks.

Updated

Bob Seely (Con) has just finished his speech in the Commons. Most of it was devoted to claims that Prof Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist whose modelling was influential in persuading Boris Johnson to order the first lockdown, was unreliable.

Tory Steve Baker urges MPs to vote against latest Covid rules, saying they are ‘path to hell’

Baker says MPs face “a fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell”. The government is taking “the path to hell”, he claims. He says he is going to vote against all the measures, because he want to take the path towards heaven. He says he hopes MPs will follow him.

Back in the Commons Steve Baker (Con), deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group, is speaking now. He says the government seems to be working on the principle that you cannot be too careful. But you can be too careful, he says.

He says if the government continues to over-react when there is a threat, whole sectors, like air travel and hospitality and tourism, will become uninvestable, he says.

These are from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

In the Commons Mark Harper, chair of the lockdown-sceptic Tory Covid Recovery Group, is speaking. Echoing what Steve Brine said earlier, he says the regulations are not clear enough about what counts as a suspected case of Omicron. Close contacts of suspected cases will have to isolate for up to 10 days.

Harper is the fourth Conservative backbencher in a row to speak. That probably means there are no more opposition MPs who want to speak. Government supporters are notably absent from this debate too, and so the debate has been dominated by Tories critical of the government.

Craig Mackinlay spoke before Harper. He said he did not understand why the rules required someone to put on a mask to go into a shop – perhaps for a very brief period of time – to buy a bottle of alcohol, when they could subsequently go to a party with a large number of people where masks would not be required.

And, before Mackinlay, Huw Merriman told MPs that he was not against what the regulations were trying to achieve in principle. But they were badly drafted, he said.

All nine Scottish Omicron cases linked to same ‘private event’, Sturgeon tells MSPs

All nine cases of the Omicron variant in Scotland link to a “single private event” on 20 November, Nicola Sturgeon has told the Holyrood parliament in her weekly Covid update.

Five cases on the new variant in Lanarkshire and four in Greater Glasgow and Clyde health boards have so far been identified.

She added that none of the people who have tested positive have so far required hospital care and that none has recent travel history to, or known links with, others who have travelled to the countries in Southern Africa where the variant was originally detected.

Sturgeon told MSPs that all nine were tested on and around 23 November.

A surveillance look back exercise had identified that the PCR test results in these cases showed what is called the S-gene dropout – this is not conclusive evidence of the Omicron variant, but indicative of it. However, whole genome sequencing of these positive samples has now identified that they are indeed the Omicron variant.

Sturgeon also told MSPs that her government did not plan to introduce new restrictions at this stage, pointing out that “some protections that the UK government has announced in recent days in relation to England – for example a requirement to wear face coverings in some settings – are already in place, and in fact more extensive, here in Scotland”.

She said that instead the Scottish government was “asking people to significantly step up and increase compliance with existing protections – such as face coverings, hygiene, home working, ventilation, vaccination and regular testing”.

She added that her government’s view remained that travel rules should be tightened further on a four-nations basis.

Yesterday the first minister of Wales and I suggested to the prime minister that, until we know more about Omicron, people arriving in the UK from overseas should be asked to self-isolate for eight days and take a PCR test on day eight after their arrival, as well as on day two.

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon.
Photograph: Reuters

Updated

Welsh health minister urges people to ‘take seriously’ risk of mixing at Christmas

At her news conference in Cardiff, Eluned Morgan, the Welsh government’s health minister, said people should “take seriously” the threat of mixing at Christmas.

Aligning firmly with Jenny Harries (see 9.31am) rather than Boris Johnson (see 1.02pm), Morgan said:

It’s too early to say yet what the situation is likely to be as we enter the Christmas period, but I would urge people to act with caution over the Christmas period. And to take seriously the situation, and the threat, of mixing with other people indoors during this time.

She also said she expected Omicron to turn up in Wales. “Omicron has not yet arrived in Wales, but it’s simply a question of time before it does,” she said.

Asked if the government would consider a type of lockdown or firebreak should Omicron begin to spread rapidly, Morgan said it was “too early to say”. But she said the government had a responsibility to keep the country open.

Eluned Morgan.
Eluned Morgan.
Photograph: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans/Rex/Shutterstock

Updated

In the Commons Christopher Chope (Con) said he thought the new Covid rules were part of a “scaremongering propaganda campaign” designed to suppress freedom.

Rees-Mogg claims parliament may still have power to jail people who refuse select committee summons

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, told MPs this morning that parliament may still have the power to jail witnesses who refuse to appear before a select committee.

He was giving evidence to the Commons privileges committee, which is considering whether the rules should be clarified so that people who do refuse to appear before an inquiry can be fined.

In the pre-democratic era the Commons could fine or imprison people for contempt of parliament, which might include ignoring a summons to attend. Most experts now believe that these powers have lapsed, which is why the committee is looking at whether legislation is need to ensure that people can be fined for boycotting a committee.

But Rees-Mogg said he thought parliament may still have these powers. He said:

Parliament has never formally given up its ability to imprison during the session of parliament …

I think the reality of our powers is that we don’t know whether they are there or not until they are used and then you might find that they are upheld by the courts or you might find that they are not and this is an argument where learned lawyers disagree.

Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the committee, said he was in “a bit of shock” to hear that Rees-Mogg thought parliament could still jail people. Bryant said he thought the Human Rights Act definitely made that impossible, and arguable the European Convention on Human Rights did too.

Rees-Mogg also said he thought it was “not unreasonable for the house to fine people for failing to attend [a committee hearing]”.

As PA Media reports, the last time someone was fined by parliament was in 1666 when Thomas White was told to pay 1,000, roughly 200,000 today, after he absconded. White had been ordered into the custody of parliament’s Serjeant at Arms for causing MP for Horsham Henry Chowne to be arrested and prevented from attending parliament.

The power to imprison was last used in 1880 with the committal of a member, Charles Bradlaugh, and the imprisonment of a non-member Charles Grissell in the same year.

Updated

Tory MP claims there’s ‘element of Salem witch trials’ in way new isolation rules could affect people

In the Commons Steve Brine (Con) quotes what Jenny Harries said on the Today programme this morning. (See 9.31am.) Brine, a former health minister, says Harries is a careful and professional civil servant. She does not say things off the cuff, he says. He says if Harries was not presenting the government’s position in that interview, the minister, Maggie Throup, should have said so from the despatch box.

Brine also says he is concerned that the regulation saying close contacts of people testing positive with Omicron should have to isolate could mean that, if one pupil at school tests positive, the other 29 pupils in the class could be spent home.

Mark Jenkinson (Con) intervenes, saying this could lead to “lockdown by default” as a result of the work of “activist directors of public health”.

Brine welcomes the point. He says, before he votes for these measures, he wants to hear clarification of what “suspected case” means in the isolation regulations. He says there is “an element of the Salem witch trials about this”, because they could lead to people being told to isolate for no good reason.

He also says that the regulations could have negative impact on confidence. He says the government is not telling people to cancel Christmas parties, but that is happening anyway. He says he knows of events being cancelled in his constituency. That is due to “the chilling effect of these regulations”, he says.

Updated

Back in the Commons Sir Graham Brady, chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, says the government should have let MPs debate these regulations before they came into force.

He echoes the concern expressed earlier (see 1.16pm) about the lack of an expiry date in the isolation regulations. And he says there are “very serious concerns about the efficacy of what is being proposed”.

Dr Andrew Murrison (Con) says, although the government says it wants to avoid the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed, there is “no conceivable way” that could happen because 90% of the population have antibodies.

Brady agrees, pointing out that Murrison is medically qualified.

Sir Desmond Swayne (Con) intervenes to say the danger with the current plans is that they could trigger another “pingdemic”.

Updated

School Covid-related absences increased significantly in November, DfE figures show

Schools in England have seen a significant jump in Covid-related absence, according to the government’s attendance data.

As concerns about the new Omicron mutation grows, Department for Education statistics show that attendance in state schools has fallen from 91.5% to 89.3% over the space of a fortnight.

Around 208,000 pupils (2.6%) were off for Covid-related reasons on 25 November, up sharply from 130,000 (1.6%) two weeks earlier on 11 November.

These included 79,000 suspected cases of coronavirus, up from 50,000, and 106,000 with a confirmed case of Covid, up from 67,000 two weeks earlier.

Covid-related absence in schools dropped following the half-term break last month, but the reprieve was short-lived, said Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union. He said:

In addition to the existing disruption, there is now also significant concern about the impact the new variant of Covid could have on schools. School leaders can’t help but remember winter term 2020 and just how bad things got. The government was too slow to act last year – it cannot repeat those same mistakes this year.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, expressed concern about increased rates of absence among staff, with around 2% of teachers and school leaders absent due to Covid-related reasons last Thursday, up from 1.4% a fortnight earlier. He said:

We have repeatedly called for more government support for schools and colleges in addressing these extreme pressures.

The government must do much more to publicly promote the importance of twice-weekly lateral flow home testing among eligible pupils, fully fund air cleaning units for schools and colleges, and properly resource the on-site testing it has asked secondary schools to provide at the start of the spring term.

Updated

Downing Street has said that today’s press conference with Boris Johnson will take place at 4pm.

Alex Norris, a shadow health minister, is responding for Labour. He says Labour supports the two regulations being passed (covering the rules on face coverings, and the rules on isolating for close contacts of Omicron cases). He says in the past Labour criticised the government for acting slowly, and so he is glad that is not happening now.

Mark Harper (Con) intervenes, and points out that yesterday he asked for an assurance from the government (which he did not get) that if the measures need to be extended over Christmas, parliament will be recalled from recess so MPs can get a vote. Would Labour back a recall in those circumstances? Norris says he will not comment on a hypothetical question, but he says he favours regulations getting proper scrutiny.

Updated

In the Commons Mark Harper makes another intervention. He says the regulations being passed today on face masks expire on 20 December, but that regulation requiring close contacts of people who have tested positive for Omicron do not have a specific expiry date, which means they will run until the main statutory instrument relating to isolation expires in March 2022.

Throup tells Harper he is making a very good point. Ministers will keep the house informed, she says. She says the regulations will not be kept in place any longer than necessary.

MPs debate new Covid restrictions

In the Commons Maggie Throup, a health minister, is opening the debate on the new Covid restrictions. And she is already running into trouble over Jenny Harries.

Three of the most lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs – Sir Desmond Swayne, Mark Harper and Steve Baker – have challenged her over what Harries said this morning. They wanted her to explicitly reject what Harries said.

Throup defended the government’s measures, but she would not explicitly reject Harries’ call for people to avoid unnecessary socialising – even when it was put to her that Boris Johnson himself said it was not the government’s position. It sounded as if Throup was not aware of the latest comments coming from No 10 (see 12.23pm) and from the PM (see 1.02pm).

Labour’s Rachael Maskell said that the government should be listening to Harries’s advice because she is a “public health professional and therefore really does understand what public health measures need to be taken to secure our well being against this pandemic”.

UPDATE: This is from my colleague Aubrey Allegretti.

Here is the full quote from Baker. He said:

Is she seriously saying that it is not for ministers to have any particular view on officials employed within the department going out and taking a position which is at odds with the government’s public policy decision? Because if that really is now the policy we have got, that even employees of departments can take their own personal positions, we really are facing chaos and the overturning of longstanding government principles.

Throup replied:

I would like to reiterate that I do not speak for other people but what I am doing today is putting out the measures that we have implemented as of this morning in a timely fashion and it is the measures that we are considering today and from the government’s point of view this is the legislation we are implementing.

Updated

Johnson says there is no need for people to cut back on socialising because of Omicron ahead of Christmas

Boris Johnson has said that there is no need for people to change their plans for meeting up with people, or for travel, in the run-up to Christmas.

In an interview with Sky’s Sam Coates, Johnson was asked if people should modify their behaviour – for example, by avoiding school nativity plays, or cancelling foreign holidays – over the next few weeks. Johnson replied:

On all that, we’re not changing the guidance on how you should basically be living your life, except in a couple of ways. That’s do with putting a mask on in some contexts, such as retail, and public transport, to stop transmission. And also making sure that we check people when they arrive in the country …

But we don’t see any need, at present certainly, to change the overall guidance about how people should be living their lives.

When asked why, if that was the case, Dr Jenny Harries said this morning that people should avoid unnecessary socialising (see 9.31am), Johnson implied that she was just urging people to be sensible. He said:

It’s always sensible to be careful, and I think what Jenny is saying there is right.

Actually, what Harries was saying went a bit beyond that.

Johnson went on:

But we’re not going to change the overall guidance. We don’t think that necessary. We don’t see anything to suggest that we need to go, for instance, to plan B.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson.
Photograph: Sky News

Updated

Javid has failed to provide proper evidence to justify mandatory jabs for NHS staff, say peers

Ministers have failed to provide proper evidence to justify their decision to require all frontline NHS staff to get vaccinated, a Lords committee says today.

In a report (pdf), the Lords secondary legislation scrutiny committee says that the Department of Health and Social Care’s own figures suggest the benefits will not justify the cost.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, announced earlier this month that all frontline NHS staff will need to be fully vaccinated from 1 April next year.

But the committee says:

DHSC’s figures anticipate that, of the 208,000 currently unvaccinated workers in the sector, this legislation will result in 54,000 (26%) additional staff being vaccinated and 126,000 (61%) losing their jobs as a result of not complying with the requirement of being vaccinated: this seems a disproportionately small gain for legislation that is anticipated to cause £270m in additional costs and major disruption to the health and care provision at the end of the grace period. The house may expect to be provided with some very strong evidence to support this policy choice, and DHSC has signally failed to do so.

Lord Hodgson, the Conservative peer who chairs the committee, said:

We fully support high levels of vaccination, but DHSC is accountable to parliament for its decisions and needs to give us a clear statement of the effect of these regulations, the effect of doing nothing and any other solutions considered, so parliament fully understands all the consequences of what it is being asked to agree to. This is particularly important when the NHS is already under such pressure.

DHSC has provided no single coherent statement to explain and justify its intended policy, and this undermines the ability of the house to undertake effective scrutiny of the proposed legislation.

No 10 refuses to back health security agency chief’s call for people to avoid unnecessary socialising

The Downing Street lobby briefing has just finished, and No 10 has delivered an unusually firm rebuke to Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, on the subject of socialising at Christmas. (See 9.31am.) It seems that Boris Johnson is in favour of “socialising when we don’t particularly need to” (Harries’s phrase).

The Sun’s Harry Cole has the key quotes.

The PM’s spokesman also revealed that Harries attended cabinet this morning to give an update on Covid.

Updated

The British Retail Consortium has said that people working in shops should not be expected to enforce the new law forcing customers to wear masks in retail premises. Helen Dickinson, the BRC chief executive, said:

Retailers will be communicating the new rules on face coverings in England through in-store signage and other channels.

However, it is vital that we do not place hardworking retail staff in harm’s way, and enforcement of face coverings must remain the duty of the authorities.

And Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, told the Today programme this morning that he would not be asking staff in his stores to enforce mask wearing by customers. He said:

The question isn’t whether or not we should mandate face masks, but whether we can mandate them. What I won’t be doing is asking my store colleagues to police those who refuse to adhere to the rules. They are already working under significant pressure, particularly as we hit the busiest trading month of the year.

Keir Starmer (2nd from left) with his new shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy (left), Yvette Cooper, the new shadow home secretary (2nd from right), and Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor.
Keir Starmer (2nd from left) with his new shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy (left), Yvette Cooper, the new shadow home secretary (2nd from right), and Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor.

Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The University of Oxford has said that it can “rapidly” update its Covid-19 vaccine “if it should be necessary” amid rising concerns about the Omicron variant. A university spokesperson said today:

Due to the very recent discovery of the new B.1.1.529 [Omicron] strain of coronavirus, there are limited data available at this time.

As with any new variant, we will carefully evaluate the implications of the emergence of B.1.1.529 for vaccine immunity.

Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different.

However, we have the necessary tools and processes in place for rapid development of an updated Covid-19 vaccine if it should be necessary.

Labour’s not moving right but moving north, Nandy claims

Labour is not moving right of the political spectrum but instead moving north, Lisa Nandy has claimed.

Commenting on yesterday’s reshuffle, Nandy, who yesterday was moved from shadow foreign secretary to shadow levelling up secretary, told Sky News:

We’re moving north; left or right, you can keep that debate. We’re going out into the country and we’re going to start delivering for people in towns, villages and cities that have been completely and utterly abandoned by the political system.

You go to Grimsby, you go to Barnsley, you go to Aberdeen, you will find proud communities that have a contribution to make.

But so often they are held back, not by the skills of their young people, not by the abilities in those communities, not by their own ambition, but by a national government that isn’t investing in the infrastructure that would bring good jobs.

Lisa Nandy
Lisa Nandy.
Photograph: Sky News

Updated

Scotland’s health minister, Humza Yousaf, has confirmed three more cases of the Omicron variant, raising the tally to five in Lanarkshire and four in Greater Glasgow and Clyde health boards, as questions continue about how the variant ended up there.

He told BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme that “nothing that links these cases back to Cop26 or the [South Africa-Scotland] rugby match. Of the current cases that we have found that timing would be off to link them”.

Yousaf said that more than 200 positive cases from Cop26 had been re-examined in the light of the new variant.

The six cases confirmed on Monday were not linked to travel, according to the Scottish government, and suggested a degree of community transmission.

At yesterday’s Covid briefing, Scotland’s chief medical officer, Gregor Smith said that the first Omicron case in Scotland was tested six days ago. “The earliest indication we have at this moment in time – and I stress at this moment in time – is that the first positive PCR test in relation to this, a confirmed case, is the 23rd of November,” he said.

But he also explained that health officials were conducting a “loop back exercise” of going through previous PCR tests back to 16 November now that they know what to look for as an indication of the Omicron variant.

He said that one of the “quirks” of the new variant was the presence of an “S-gene dropout or negative on PCR testing”. This allowed specialises to identify a potential Omicron case before genomic sequencing and allowed them to make immediate contact with individuals to undertake advanced contact tracing.

Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that the “loop back exercise” had led to the identification of all six cases in Scotland yesterday.

Updated

Richard Moore, the head of MI6, has warned about China’s use of financial and data power to wield influence as he set out the need for Britain’s spies to work with the global tech sector to maintain cutting-edge capabilities, PA Media reports. PA says:

Moore said Beijing used “debt traps and data traps” to get countries and individuals “on the hook”.

The increasing complexity of the technology being used around the world meant MI6’s “boffins” were unable to meet the challenges alone and outside help was needed, he added.

Moore used rare public appearances on Tuesday to set out the need for a “sea change” in the culture of the Secret Intelligence Service.

The changing nature of the work meant that a James Bond-style Q figure is no longer able to provide all the technological capabilities required by MI6, he said.

“Given the challenges to the way in which we go about recruiting and running secret agents, if you look at some of the technology that is available to authoritarian regimes around so-called smart cities, technologies, surveillance etc then clearly, in order to stay ahead of that, we can’t do all of this in-house,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

“As you say, we can’t do it in our Q labs, the boffins behind the wire-type model doesn’t work for us any more.”

Health chief plays down prospect of latest restrictions being lifted before Christmas

In his statement to MPs yesterday Sajid Javid, the health secretary, suggested that if it turns out that the Omicron variant is no more dangerous than Delta, then the new measures coming into force today will be lifted. The government expects to have a much better idea of the threat posed by Omicron within three weeks and Javid seemed to be dangling before MPs the possibility of the latest restrictions could be gone before Christmas.

That is what the more lockdown-sceptic Conservatives (a significant chunk of the parliamentary party) want to hear. But is it remotely probable? In her Today interview, Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), was repeatedly asked if she could imagine saying to ministers in two or three weeks’ time that the latest measures could be lifted. Harries rather skilfully avoided answering the question directly, although astute listeners may have concluded that, if forced to give an answer, it would have been “probably not”.

Here are the key points.

  • Harries played down the prospect of the latest Covid restrictions being lifted before Christmas. She would not answer when she was asked if she could imagine this happening, but she stressed the possible threat posed by Omicron and said that it was important to be “very careful”. She said the new measures were designed to give the authorities time to study the threat posed by the new variant. She also said that escalating the booster programme would give Britain better protection.
  • She said it was “highly likely” that the vaccines would offer some protection against Omicron. But she said it was also “likely” that that effectiveness would be reduced.
  • She said, even if vaccines offer some protection against Omicron, the new variant could still lead to hospitals coming under significantly more pressure. Asked about the prospect of the latest measures being lifted before Christmas, she said:

I think we do need to be very careful … In the winter we know there’s a strong demand on our hospital system for other reasons, not just from Covid, and I think a critical point here is, even if the vaccines appear to be effective but we find that the variant is more highly transmissible, having lowish grade infection but in very large numbers of the population could still [have] a significant impact on our hospitals.

  • She encouraged people to cut back on unnecessary socialising over winter while the threat posed by Omicron remains unclear. (See 9.31am.)
  • She said there has been no significant rise in the presence of S-gene target failure in the positive Covid cases being examined in the UK. S-gene target failure is not proof of Omicron (other variants feature it), but given that it is now very rare, and that Omicron does feature it (or S-gene dropout, as it is sometimes called), it is a good indicator for Omicron. “We have seen no rise, no significant rise, from the normal 1 in 1,000 cases that we would normally have,” she said.
  • She said early reports about Omicron having only a mild impact in South Africa should be treated with caution because its population was so different. She said the average age of the population in South Africa is 27. In the UK it is 41. And she said Omicron, like other coronavirus variants, is thought to be much worse for older people not younger younger.
Jenny Harries.
Jenny Harries.
Photograph: Reuters

Updated

Health chief urges people to cut back on unnecessary socialising while Omicron threat remains unclear

Good morning. We’ve got another day where politics will be largely dominated by news and debate about the measures being taken in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant. There will be a debate and vote in the Commons, statements from the Scottish and Welsh governments, and a press conference from Boris Johnson this afternoon, focusing on booster vaccines. And this morning Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), has been on the Today programme. The new Covid restrictions for England announced by the government were relatively minimal compared with what they might have been – many countries have significantly tougher rules for Delta – but Harries gave a hint of of how scientists’ preferences are some way ahead of what politicians are willing to legislate for when she said it would better if avoided unnecessary socialising.

Harries stressed that we still don’t know how serious is the threat posed by Omicron. Asked if she wanted to see more people working from home (a measure in the UK government’s plan B, but not one that it has yet implemented), Harries told the programme:

What we’ve seen is, in fact, that not everybody has gone back to work. I’d like to think of it more in a general way, which is if we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay. So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs.

I will post more from her interview shortly.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: Boris Johnson chairs cabinet.

Morning: Keir Starmer chairs a meeting of his new shadow cabinet.

9.30am: Jonathan Brearley, chief executive of energy regulator Ofgem, gives evidence to the Lords industry and regulators committee about energy prices.

10.15am: Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, gives evidence to the Commons privileges committee about the powers committees should have to summon witnesses.

11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.

11.30am: Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, takes questions in the Commons. David Lammy will respond for Labour as the new shadow foreign secretary.

12.15pm: Eluned Morgan, the Welsh government’s health minister, holds a Covid briefing.

After 12.45pm: MPs begin a three-hour debate on the new Covid restrictions for England announced at the weekend.

After 2pm: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, gives a statement to the Scottish parliament on Covid.

Around 4pm: MPs begin a debate on an SNP motion censuring Boris Johnson for dishonesty and other breaches of standards.

Afternoon: Boris Johnson holds a press conference.

I will be covering UK Covid developments here, as well as non-Covid politics, but for global Covid developments, do read our global live blog.

I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

Alternatively, you can email me at andrew.sparrow@theguardian.com

Updated

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