British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed stricter restrictions on COVID-19 in England, ordering people to work from home, wear masks in public and use vaccine cards to slow the spread of the Omikron coronavirus.
After undermining accusations that his employees were involved in Downing Street during a Christmas shutdown last year, Johnson said Wednesday that Omicron was spreading rapidly and he had no choice but to move to “Plan B” while the booster vaccine program began.
While still far from the full lockdown imposed earlier in the pandemic, the new measures have been described as a “hammer blow” to downtown restaurants, cafes and stores badly in need of the Christmas trade to rebuild their finances.
Many lawmakers in Johnson’s own party are also angry at the new restrictions, fearing their impact after the economy contracted a historic 10 per cent last year.
“While the picture may improve, and I sincerely hope it does, we know that the ruthless logic of explosive growth can lead to a significant increase in hospitalizations and, unfortunately, in deaths,” Johnson said at a news conference.
The British pound fell sharply when news first emerged on Wednesday that ‘Plan B’ measures were imminent and investors scaled back their bets on a Bank of England rate hike next week.
Johnson, who lifted most of England’s COVID restrictions in July after rolling out a rapid vaccine, pledged to drive in the winter without resorting to a fourth COVID-19 lockdown, but kept his so-called “Plan B” in reserve.
Part of those measures, such as the reintroduction of masks on public transport and in stores, have already been introduced, but on Wednesday, Johnson said people should now work from home.
Face masks will be required in public places, such as theaters and cinemas, and a COVID pass will be mandatory for access to nightclubs and places with large crowds.
Johnson said the new measures are necessary after 568 cases of Omicron were detected in the country, and data suggest the doubling time for infection can be anywhere from two to three days.
Health Minister Sajid Javid said officials have estimated that the number of Omicron infections was actually about 20 times higher than the number of confirmed cases, meaning it could be closer to 10,000.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from London, said recent accusations that Johnson’s employees were involved in Downing Street during a Christmas lockdown last year have undermined his legitimacy.
A leaked video showed senior employees laughing and joking about how to explain a gathering in Downing Street during the COVID-19 lockdown at Christmas last year. Johnson has apologized.
Simmons said the audience was wondering how Johnson could “really be a moral authority, guiding the public on what to do” after dodging questions about last year’s Christmas party, which was “offensive to the British public”.
Some companies have reacted to the new restrictions, announced as Christmas approaches, with hesitation.
“The renewed ‘work from home’ demand during the most important trading period of the year is a huge blow to our retail and entertainment tenants,” said Jess Terrell, CEO of New West End Company.
While many businesses have adapted well to working from home, sectors such as hospitality, entertainment and travel have taken a hit. In contrast to previous closures, the furloughed job support scheme is also no longer available.
A Savanta ComRes poll also suggested that some people may be less willing to follow the new restrictions after the Downing Street party was revealed.
The prime minister also said coronavirus restrictions could not last forever and the country might need to have a “conversational” about what to do when a large proportion of the population refuses to get a vaccine.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have set their own COVID restrictions and have already put in place stricter rules.