As we say goodbye to 2021, many people look forward to celebrating the new year without further Covid restrictions.
On Monday, Health Minister Sajid Javid confirmed that no more rules would be introduced before the new year, but said “we will see” whether new measures are needed in January.
But with increasing Omicron cases, new rules may be needed depending on how many people are hospitalized with the new variant, reports the Mirror.
Go here for the latest coronavirus updates and the latest Covid-19 news
Prime Minister Boris Johnson detained all further measures until at least the first week of January in light of the Tory opposition and a furious debate over whether they are necessary.
Analysis last week by the UK Health Safety Agency suggested that a person with Omicron Covid is “50 to 70% less likely to be hospitalized” than a person with Delta.
Omicron’s growth may also be slower, but it may just be that Christmas is disrupting testing and data collection.
And SAGE advisers say a “big wave” of hospitalizations “should be expected soon” because the variant is spreading so fast. The average daily Covid hospitalization in London has risen from 193 to 324 in one week.
Downing Street has been tight-lipped about what may come next – insisting that Plan B is the only plan for now.
But hints and glimpses have leaked out and we can get an idea of what’s on the table from SAGE’s advice and actions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
So while none of this has been confirmed, here are some of the options Boris Johnson and his team are likely to look at.
Full ‘Step 2’ – with a ban on indoor gatherings
Scientific advisers to the government have modeled a return to either complete “step 2” restrictions or a mixed model that reduces the mix by half of what was achieved in step 2.
Step 2 is what England’s lockdown passed to April 12, 2021, with only very limited entertainment and socializing allowed.
It banned indoor gatherings between different households, banned pubs and restaurants from serving indoors, and set a limit of six people for outdoor gatherings.
Accommodation with people outside your household or bubble was prohibited. And it forbade people in England to go on holiday abroad.
Experts modeled step 2 restrictions on December 28 or January 1 and kept them in place until either January 15, January 28, or March 28.
SAGE subgroup SPI-MO found that a ‘50% of Step 2 ‘measure would trigger “only a very small reduction” in serious illness and death.
By comparison, full-fat stage 2 could reduce the number of deaths by 12-27% if kept in place until January 15, or by 24-54% if kept until March 28.
But there is a big “but” here – the political and economic costs of this would be enormous, with leave almost certainly needed, and Tory MPs are furious at such strict restrictions on a vaccinated population.
None of the four British nations has come this far, nor does it appear that England would do so.
Closing of nightclubs
Nightclubs have consistently been the first victim of Covid restrictions and were closed by law for 16 consecutive months until July.
Already, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have ordered nightclubs to close again as part of measures to tackle Omicron.
Boris Johnson has stopped doing the same in England, instead of ordering all the nightclubs, major venues and venues open after 6 p.m. 01:00 to require ‘Covid Pass’ from players.
In a last-minute descent, the prime minister agreed that clubs could still lock unvaccinated people through their doors if they show evidence of a recent negative Covid test. But 100 Tory MPs revolted.
It may be easier politically for the Prime Minister to close nightclubs altogether than to reopen the debate on Covid passports to gain access.
Rule of sex
A return to the ‘six rule’ is an option that has been looked at by Whitehall officials for England, the Telegraph reported.
But sources were not specific about where a six-person limit for gatherings could apply. Would it be in private homes, or just public places? Would it be indoors, outdoors or both?
Stage 2 banned indoor socializing and struck the “six-rule” at outdoor gatherings – but none of the British nations have gone that far.
Wales and Northern Ireland have both introduced the “six-rule” at indoor gatherings between several households.
But they have only done this for public places, such as pubs and restaurants. In Wales, gatherings of up to 30 people are allowed in private homes, and up to 50 people can gather anywhere outside.
And Scotland has not brought back the six-rule instead of asking people to limit assemblies to three households or fewer at a time.
Restrictions on numbers in venues and events
Wales has limited indoor assemblies for 30 people and outdoor for 50 people.
Wales has also ordered two meters of social distance between tables in restaurants, pubs and other public spaces where individual groups are limited to six people.
Northern Ireland has restricted indoor gatherings to 30 people by law and required two meters of social distance in offices.
And in Scotland, there are capacity limits of 200 people for indoor seating events or 100 for indoor seating events – while hospitality venues must ensure a meter distance between all individual groups in a venue.
All of these rules are less stringent than the ‘step 2’ measures we saw in April, but it is reasonable to assume that they will also have been looked at in England.
Table service in pubs
In addition to having restrictions for each group in one place, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all ordered pubs and bars to return for table service.
This means that people can only stand in line at the bar to pick up their drinks in England, while players in the other three nations have to rely on apps or to pay tribute to staff.
This is similar – though not so strictly – to step 2, where pubs and bars not only had to stick to table service, they could also only serve outdoors.
It seems reasonable to assume that this is an option that has been looked at in England.
Weddings and funerals
During stage 2 in April, weddings were still limited to 15 people, while funerals were limited to 30.
But as horrific couples have postponed their weddings several times – and the pain of sparse funerals is still raw – the government seems reluctant to set size limits on these events again.
According to the Times, “significant life events” such as weddings and funerals will be exempt from stricter measures in England.
This would follow the leadership of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, none of which have imposed size restrictions on weddings or funerals this time.
Guidance or legal restrictions?
The last big question for Boris Johnson is whether to adopt optional guidance, legal restrictions or a mix of the two.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have a mix of guidance and laws, but in England – due to fierce Tory opposition – the Prime Minister has promised to debate any laws in Parliament before passing them.
Parliament returns on 4 January, suggesting that if he wants to avoid revoking the Commons, 5 January is the earliest start date for any legal restrictions.
However, he could build on the guidance already in place and encourage people to use lateral flow tests and meet outdoors if possible.
For example, he could take the same approach as Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and ask people not to meet in groups of more than three households at a time – but to do so voluntarily.
For the latest local news in your area directly to your inbox every day, go here to sign up for our free newsletter