Boris Johnson’s government has implemented its “Plan B” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, reinstating social restrictions in England to curb the spread of the new Omicron variant of the virus.
Having previously hoped to proceed with “Plan A” – encouraging the roll-out of booster shots – the Prime Minister’s hand was forced after a meeting of the Government’s Covid Operations Committee, which laid bare the potential threat posed by the more easily transmissible new variant would.
The new strain led to rising infection rates over Christmas and New Year, with the UK hitting a single-day pandemic peak of 218,724 cases on January 4, according to the UK Health Security Agency.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, declared a serious incident about the extent of the Omicron outbreak in the capital ahead of Christmas, while NHS England announced a return to its highest level of emergency preparedness, level four national incident, meaning the response of the health service is being coordinated as a national effort rather than being led by individual trusts.
As a result, face masks are now mandatory on public transport and in shops, cinemas, theaters and places of worship, an NHS Covid passport is required to enter crowded venues and booster vaccines are gradually being made available to all adults, not just the older and vulnerable.
But perhaps the most significant new measure for many is the return of the work-from-home order.
Experts from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have been calling for the measure since at least last week, while others have been recommending it since October.
Mr Johnson took time out from his schedule of firefighting Tory scandals over second jobs and illegal Downing Street parties – and his wife went into labor for a second time – and said at a press conference on Wednesday December 8: ‘We will reintroduce the guide to work home.
“From Monday you should work from home if possible. Go to work if you must, but work from home if you can. I know this will be difficult for a lot of people, but by reducing your contacts at work you will help slow the transmission.”
This will be the case for at least six weeks, but the state of affairs will be measured on Wednesday 26C, according to Health Minister Sajid Javid, whether Covid-19 is widespread again and the high infection rate is leading to unmanageable hospitalization.
Mr Johnson struck a cautious note during his press conference announcing the work-from-home guidelines, saying: “We cannot yet assume that Omicron will be any less severe than previous variants.
“Although the picture could improve, and I sincerely hope that it will, we know that the relentless logic of exponential growth could lead to a sharp increase in hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths.”
“Therefore it is now proportionate and responsible to move on to Plan B in England whilst also working closely with our colleagues in the Devolved Administrations so that we slow the spread of the virus and buy ourselves time to get even more boosters in Arms, particularly among older and more vulnerable people.”
The decision was not taken lightly as the directive’s adverse effects on the mental health and well-being of individuals are well documented, as are its adverse effects on businesses, particularly office-related services such as cafes, restaurants, pubs, dry cleaners and gyms.
Many offices across the country have welcomed employees back to their desks for about two to three days a week since restrictions were eased on July 19 — once known as “Freedom Day,” and the reversal is coming as a blow to many people happy to be reunited in person with their colleagues after a year of Zoom meetings and Slack messaging conducted in isolation from guest rooms and kitchen tables.