The government has been “presented with some very challenging new information” about the Omicron variant and will keep restrictions “under review”, Michael Gove has said after he chaired a meeting of the COBRA emergency committee.
Mr Gove headed the talks with first ministers and deputy first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to discuss COVID-19 data and coordination on the response.
The minister for intergovernmental relations, who is isolating after coming into contact with Australia’s deputy prime minister, said: “We know that we have the highest number of COVID infections across the United Kingdom recorded today, since 9 January.
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“We know that the Omicron variant is doubling every two to three days in England, and possibly even faster in Scotland.
“We knew that 30% of reported cases in London are the Omicron variant. And of course, we only identified the Omicron variant in this country a fortnight ago.
“So, we absolutely do need to keep everything under review.”
Gove avoids talking about Plan C as cases rise
He said the government’s approach is “proportionate” and he recognises the “importance of balancing people’s ability to get on with their lives with a need to protect against this virus”.
However, he added: “Action is absolutely required, and as new data comes in, we will consider what action we do require to take in the face of that data.”
The latest figures show 448 new Omicron cases were recorded in the latest 24-hour period – nearly double the previous day – taking the total to 1,265.
There were 443 in England, one in Scotland and four in Wales during the latest period.
Plan B: What are the new restrictions?
Mr Gove avoided talking about whether a “Plan C” will be brought in as more than 50 Conservative MPs have said they will vote against the government’s vote next week to bring in Plan B restrictions, with many concerned that will open the floodgates for further restrictions.
Tory MPs to rebel on Plan B vote next week
Chris Green, a regular critic of COVID rules, is one of the latest Tory MPs to declare he will vote against the rules, which include introducing vaccine passports for large events.
“I am concerned the government is using them as a stepping stone to implement a harsher ‘Plan C’ in the New Year,” he said.
Plan B means people in England have to wear face coverings in most indoor spaces, including hospitality, the work from home guidance has returned and NHS COVID passes are required to enter large events.
Earlier on Friday, the Health Security Agency said the UK could have more than one million cases of Omicron by the end of the month if current trends continue unchanged.
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has predicted that a new wave of the pandemic is about to begin as she tightened COVID restrictions and urged people to cancel Christmas work parties.
From Saturday, all household contacts of any COVID cases should isolate for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status and even if they initially get a negative PCR test.
Non-household contact can leave isolation if they receive a negative PCR test and are double vaxxed.