Revellers hit the bars on Friday night as Plan B was enacted across England, bringing in stricter measures in order to suppress the spread of the highly infectious Omicron Covid-19 variant, with Christmas just two weeks away.
In Newcastle, Leeds and London, revellers were spotted donning festive headgear and celebrating with work colleagues as they got in their Christmas bashes early.
Pubs and bars remained as packed as ever – despite restrictions being tightened in England this morning – with more to be rolled out in the coming days.
One such measure sees the NHS Covid pass – obtained by having two vaccines or a negative lateral flow test – being introduced as an entry requirement into nightclubs and other large venues from Wednesday, December 15.
The passports will apply to all unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue with more than 10,000 people.
Partygoers who were expecting to have to commute into the office on Monday were given a reprieve by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Wednesday announcement, telling people to work from home where possible, allowing those who want to make the most of the weekend some extra recovery time.
The festive celebrations come as Public Health Scotland urges people to cancel their Christmas parties, in a message which clashes with Boris Johnson’s suggestion that bashes in England should still go ahead despite a call for workers to stay away from offices.
LEEDS: A group of friends do the Can-can on Friday night ahead of Plan B being enacted across England, bringing in stricter measures in order to suppress the spread of the highly infectious Omicron Covid-19 variant
NEWCASTLE: Party-goers in varied fancy dress – including Batman, Wolverine and one of the 118 men – pose for the camera as they enjoy a night on the town ahead of Plan B measures going into force
LEEDS: A group of women pose for the camera on a night out in Leeds on Friday. Temperatures hit lows of 38F
LEEDS: Christmas revellers walk to the bars in Leeds on Friday night. From Wednesday next week, partygoers will need the NHS Covid pass in order to enter nightclubs as part of the new Plan B measures
LONDON: A group dressed as Santa pose for photographs in London’s Soho party central on Friday night
The NHS Covid pass will be compulsory to gain access to nightclubs and other large venues where large crowds gather.
Two vaccine doses will be treated as fully-vaccinated but this will be kept under review because of the booster programme.
A negative lateral flow test will also be sufficient under the requirement, which will be rolled out in one week’s time to give businesses time to prepare.
Meanwhile, mandatory mask wearing – already a requirement on public transport – is now extended to indoor public venues including cinemas, theatres and places of worship. Masks are not required in pubs and restaurants.
People were seen out tonight hitting the bars and clubs, as those who will not be able to obtain a vaccine passport enjoyed a night on the town before the new measures come into effect.
It is not known when they will be lifted, with reports of a Plan C and even stricter measures under consideration by the government as the variant is expected to become dominant in the coming weeks. Mr Johnson said the measures – originally drawn up in September – will be reviewed after Christmas on January 5.
NEWCASTLE: Revellers out in Newcastle tonight get into the party mood with the festive celebrations in full swing despite Plan B COVID measures being introduced today, with Christmas just two weeks away
LEEDS: A group of friends pose for the camera on Friday. From Wednesday, NHS Covid pass – obtained by having two vaccines or a negative lateral flow test – are being introduced as an entry requirement into nightclubs and other large venues
LEEDS: Two women – one in a Santa hat and the other with reindeer antlers – embrace for the camera in Leeds on Friday
LEEDS: Revellers head to the bars as people make the most of of a Christmas night out before new Covid measures
LONDON: A group of women in festive gear wait for a bus as Christmas party season gets underway in London’s Soho
LONDON: A man dressed as Santa greets people inside a restaurant in London’s Soho on Friday night
Pictures from Newcastle and Leeds showed young people dressed up for some festive partying. On Tyneside, revellers posed for photographs in skimpy festive fancy dress, despite temperatures of around 35F.
Leeds saw similarly raucous scenes with temperatures only mildly better at 38F. Groups of women posed for photographs while doing the Can-can between bars.
But it wasn’t all fun and games, with pictures showing one man being tackled to the ground by police officers before being taken away.
LEEDS: A man is tackled to the ground by a police officer, smashing a bottle on the ground and sending glass everywhere
NEWCASTLE: A group of men make the most of Christmas jumper day, sporting a variety of festive tops
NEWCASTLE: A man with a glitter beard and Santa hat shows off his’mam’ and ‘dad’ tattoos
LEEDS: A group of friends, some wearing Santa hats and one in a Christmas blazer, do the Can-can in Leeds on Friday night
Dr Nick Phin, Public Health Scotland’s director of public health science, has said revellers should delay their festive gatherings until another time to help in the effort to slow virus spread.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said cases of the variant will keep rising.
On restrictions, he told a Royal Society of Medicine briefing: ‘I think it’s a necessary evil … it’s very damaging for parts of the economy, the hospitality sector, retail sector in particular – they’re going to be affected.
‘Unfortunately, we have to do it. The rate at which this virus is spreading is doubling every two or three days.’
He added: ‘Even though there’s very few cases here now, and it seems like an overreaction, it absolutely is not an overreaction.’
Sports stadia are also included in regulations published on Thursday evening, but the Department of Health confirmed face coverings will only be mandatory in indoor areas.
People attending churches or other places of worship will have to wear a face mask – but will be allowed to take it off to sing, making people question whether the face covering will make any difference to the spread of Omicron.
The exemption has created confusion amid concerns that singing creates a higher risk of spreading Covid-19 by making droplets travel further.
Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph cites an anonymous Government source as saying it is ‘very likely’ visitors in social care settings will be limited to only three designated visitors as part of plans being considered by ministers.
There were a total of 817 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the UK as of Thursday, the UK Health Security Agency said.
Boosters DO beat Omicron and cut risk of falling ill by 75%
Booster Covid jabs offer up to 75 per cent protection against mild illness caused by the super Omicron variant, official UK Government analysis revealed tonight.
Experts are confident that three doses will provide significantly greater immunity against severe illness and death from the highly-evolved strain.
In people who had their second dose more than three months ago, effectiveness against symptomatic disease could be lower than 40 per cent for Pfizer and virtually zero for AstraZeneca.
But officials stress that even two vaccines should still offer high protection against severe illness, in the most promising sign yet that the incoming wave of hospital admissions and deaths will not surpass previous peaks.
There is now growing optimism among No10 scientists that Plan B restrictions and the booster campaign will be enough to avoid more draconian curbs. It was also confirmed that none of the UK’s 1,265 Omicron infections have led to hospital admission or death so far.
The real-world analysis by the UK Health Security Agency looked at 581 people with confirmed Omicron and compared their vaccine status to a control group of people who tested positive for Delta.
It estimated that a Pfizer booster provides between 70 and 75 per cent protection against mild Omicron illness, regardless of which vaccine was originally used, compared to 90 per cent for Delta.
Two doses of Pfizer may offer just 37 per cent protection after three-and-a-half months compared to 60 per cent for Delta. Two shots of AstraZeneca offered virtually no protection after the same amount of time.
But the scientists caution that data for AstraZeneca was less reliable due to the fact the vaccine was restricted in some age groups and typically used at the very start of the initial vaccine rollout in vulnerable people.
UKHSA experts who carried out the study said that while it was disappointing that Omicron weakened existing jabs to some extent, the new variant is not as vaccine-evasive as initially feared.
Omicron already makes up 30 per cent of new Covid cases in London, according to confidential data given to ministers that underlines the severity of the situation Britain faces in the run-up to Christmas as fears grow that even tougher restrictions may be needed.
UK leaders today were dragged into a Cobra meeting to discuss the next logical steps in fighting the pandemic, and analyse the most up-to-date evidence on the super-mutant strain.
Communities Secretary Michael Gove, who held the briefing virtually after testing positive himself, warned the current crisis was ‘deeply concerning’, naming London and Scotland as hotspots. He described the latest data presented to the devolved nations as ‘very challenging new information’.
Stark projections show the super-mutant variant could become dominant within days, prompting concerns that Boris Johnson will have no choice but to hit the panic button once more.
No10 has already brought in its back-up Plan B strategy, reimposing work-from-home guidance and making face masks compulsory in more venues. Officials have repeatedly refused to rule out acting further.
Tougher options could replicate ones introduced last Christmas in the face of the second wave, which effectively cancelled Christmas for millions living in areas worst-hit by Alpha, such as London.
London also appears to be faring badly this time around, with Omicron thought to blame for Government data showing the capital has the England’s fastest growing Covid outbreak. All of the city’s 32 boroughs are seeing cases tick upwards, and Omicron has been found in every corner of the city.
Hospitalisations and deaths in the capital remain flat but both measures lag behind by several weeks because of how long it can take for someone who has caught the virus to become seriously unwell.
Public health chiefs in the capital say they are taking the new threat ‘extremely seriously’, and that it could take over in the city in as little as two weeks.
Scotland is the other Omicron hotspot, with concerns of a ‘tsunami’ of cases prompting Nicola Sturgeon to today introduce stricter self-isolation rules. Announcing that entire families will now have to self isolate if one member of their household tests positive for the virus, she said the variant could become dominant within days.
Speaking following this afternoon’s Cobra briefing, Mr Gove said: ‘The meeting I’ve just chaired with First Ministers of all the devolved administrations was presented with some very challenging new information.
‘We know that we have the highest number of Covid infections across the UK recorded today since January 9. We know the Omicron variant is doubling every two to three days in England, and possibly even faster in Scotland.
Confidential UK Health Security Agency data showed that Omicron may now be behind 8.5 per cent of infections. The figures are based on the proportion of PCR tests failing to detect a specific gene, an early indicator of the variant. PCRs look for three genes to confirm a Covid infection, but with Omicron one is so mutated that they only pick up two of them. The analysis was done by Professor Alastair Grant, a Covid modeller at the University of East Anglia, who has access to the secret statistics
‘We know that 30 per cent of reported cases in London are the Omicron variant and of course we only identified Omicron in this country a fortnight ago.’
Meanwhile, Britain’s total Omicron cases surged by 54 per cent in a day with another 448 confirmed. It took the official toll past 1,200 but health chiefs admit the true figure will be up to 20 times higher, with surveillance data suggesting it already makes up at least 10 per cent of new cases – the equivalent of 4,000 people per day.
It comes after Britain’s Covid cases rose 15 per cent in a week today with another 58,194 recorded as the mutant strain takes hold. Hospitalisations rose by six per cent in seven days with 839 admissions, and deaths fell by more than a tenth.
But in a promising sign a study found booster jabs may be 70 to 75 per cent effective at stopping infections with the Omicron variant.