British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not planning further restrictions in England to contain the significant growth of the Omicron coronavirus variant, his spokesman said on Friday, as Scotland warned it could become dominant within days.
Johnson, who sets health rules in England, introduced his “Plan B” COVID-19 measures on Wednesday, ordering people to work from home, wear masks in public places and use vaccine passes to slow the spread of Omicron.
There are 1,265 genomically confirmed cases of Omicron in the United Kingdom, but health minister Sajid Javid has said it is spreading in the community, and on Wednesday estimated the number of Omicron infections at closer to 10,000.
The government says its strategy with the Plan B measures is to buy time to understand more about the variant, while pressing ahead with booster shots.
While Omicron shows signs of partial vaccine evasion, early findings from a real-world study released on Friday suggested that boosters restored some protection.
But the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) also said Omicron could mean Britain exceeds one million infections by the end of the month.
On Friday Britain reported 58,194 COVID-19 new daily cases, the highest daily total since January. There have been more than 50,000 new coronavirus infections on four of the last five days.
“There is significant growth of Omicron here in this country and we are seeing early signs of vaccine escape,” the spokesman said, adding scientists needed more time to study the variant.
Asked about the possibility of a “Plan C” of further restrictions being put in place, he said: “There are no plans to go beyond what we have set out already. Obviously we need to keep the characteristics of this variant under review and we would act if necessary but there are no plans.”
The early findings released by UKHSA on Friday showed that Omicron substantially reduces protection against mild disease from the initial vaccination, but boosters restore it to between 70%-75%.
The agency has said that Omicron has a growth advantage over the dominant Delta variant but that there is insufficient data to assess the severity of illness caused or protection against severe disease given by vaccines or previous infection.
Senior minister Michael Gove on Friday held a meeting with the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who control their own health policies, about co-ordinating their responses to the latest COVID-19 data.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Omicron could become dominant in the nation early next week.
She said that while she hoped that people who got Omicron might have milder disease, there was no guarantee, and the rapid growth in cases would cause problems for the National Health Service nevertheless.
“Given the volume of people who could be infected by Omicron because of its greater transmissibility, even if most of those cases are mild, the number of cases of serious illness amongst those infections will put massive strain on the ability of the NHS to cope,” she told a news conference.