Covid restrictions will not be tightened in England before the New Year, Boris Johnson has decided after reviewing the latest data on the spread of the omicron variant.
It means that New Year’s Eve parties can go ahead, although the possibility of new rules in January has not been ruled out.
The public are also being urged to show “caution” in the coming week, including taking a lateral flow test before gatherings, keeping windows open where possible and wearing a mask when required.
The Prime Minister is understood to have taken the decision not to bring in further restrictions at this stage because of signs in the data that omicron may be a milder form of Covid-19, as suggested by previous scientific analysis.
Mr Johnson tweeted on Monday: “We will continue to monitor the data carefully, but there will be no new restrictions introduced in England before the New Year.
“However, I would urge everyone to continue to act cautiously given the rising number of omicron cases.
“Most importantly I urge everyone to get their first, second or booster jab without delay to protect yourselves and your loved ones.”
Omicron cases fall, with fewer people admitted to hospital than last year
The number of people in hospital in England with Covid is less than half of what it was last year, despite there being three times as many reported cases.
The number of daily cases fell on Monday to 98,515, from 108,893 on Boxing Day.
And Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, revealed on Monday that 75 per cent of eligible adults have received a booster jab, with the speed of the rollout being cited as one reason for not bringing in new restrictions.
However, the move leaves England out of step with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have all imposed limits on household mixing in social settings.
Announcing the decision, Mr Javid said: “We look at the data on a daily basis – that hasn’t changed over the Christmas period. But there will be no further measures before the New Year.
“Of course, people should remain cautious as we approach New Year’s celebrations. Take a lateral flow test if that makes sense, celebrate outside if you can, have some ventilation if you can.
“Please remain cautious and when we get into the New Year, of course, we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures. But nothing more until then, at least.”
Mixed reaction to news of no more restrictions until the New Year
The move was welcomed by the hospitality industry, but the Government was criticised by some scientists.
The Prime Minister made the decision following a meeting with Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser to discuss the data.
Hospitalisations are rising. Some 1,281 people were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 on Christmas Day, NHS England announced on Monday.
That amounted to a 74 per cent rise week on week, and the highest single day figure since February 16.
However, the number of people in hospital in England with Covid is also less than half of what it was last year, despite there being three times as many reported cases.
Another 45,307 cases of the omicron variant were confirmed by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on Monday, bringing the total for the UK up to 159,932.
Hope is growing in Downing Street that UKHSA analysis released last week, which said people who catch omicron are 50 per cent to 70 per cent less likely to need hospital care than those infected with other Covid variants, is proving true. However, it remains early days.
A renewed push for those still yet to get a booster jab to come forward was made on Monday, with Mr Javid saying 1.5 million vaccination spots are available in England in the next few days.
Mr Johnson’s decision to hold off on tightening the Covid rules before New Year echoes the position he took before Christmas, and matches his instinct to keep restrictions at a minimum.
But it also reflects pressure from Tory MPs, both backbenchers sceptical of lockdowns and a sizable group of Cabinet ministers who resisted calls to go further before Christmas. The latest decision means that Parliament will not be recalled this week.
Conservative MPs had urged caution in going beyond Plan B in England, with Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown calling for a “wait and see” approach to the impact of infections on hospital admissions.
However, officials continue to work on possible new measures to slow the spread of omicron, with government figures making clear they are prepared to act if required by the data.
The Telegraph understands a return of the “rule of six” is one possible measure being considered, which would cap gatherings in England to six people or two households.
No decisions have been taken and specific proposals are yet to be formally put to government ministers for their approval.
Mr Javid did note that NHS staff absences owing to the omicron surge were a “challenge” and that absentee rates, especially in London, were “relatively high”.
The knock-on impact of the rise in Covid cases and self-isolation requirements on workforces in critical national infrastructure is being closely watched in Whitehall.
Professor Andrew Hayward, director of University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said the Government should be “much clearer” in its messaging about “being cautious”.
“Going to an indoor New Year’s Eve Party is not cautious, even if it is well ventilated,” Prof Hayward told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
“It seems as though we’re acting on the optimistic end of the spectrum rather than the cautious end of the spectrum.”
But Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the trade body UK Hospitality, said: “Britain’s hospitality businesses will be raising a New Year’s toast to celebrate the Government’s pragmatic and proportionate approach.
“This will give a real lifeline for many who have struggled with the loss of trade in the run up to Christmas and the loss of New Year on top of that would have been devastating for many.
“This will be a welcome boost and keeping restrictions to a minimum and lifting the remaining restrictions as quickly as possible to help the beleaguered sector back onto the road to recovery.”
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said it was not yet known how Christmas mixing among younger and older people, many of whom have had a booster vaccination, would impact on hospital demand.
He told Times Radio: “I think we’re all looking at the data really, really carefully.
“The bit that we just simply don’t know yet is that most of the Covid-19 admissions tend to be in people who are younger… So what we’re really waiting to see is exactly what is going to happen over the next few days, stroke week, particularly because we know there was a lot of intergenerational mixing at Christmas.”
Omicron has an impact on Boxing Day sales
In a sign that the population could be curbing its own behaviour after Christmas, retail bosses said they had experienced a “muted start” to the post-Christmas sales. A high street expert suggested that footfall on Boxing Day was half the pre-pandemic level.
Jace Tyrrell, the chief executive of the New West End Company, which represents 600 business across Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street and Mayfair, said that the turnout was largely due to the emergence of the omicron variant.