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Ministers have been accused of leaving thousands of schoolchildren to shiver through a second Covid winter in freezing classrooms by being slow to act over ventilation. 

Labour today lashed out at a delay of almost a year between scientists first warning the Government of the importance of good airflow in school spaces and the launch of a pilot scheme to work out how to improve it.

The pilot, being carried out in a school in Bradford, West Yorkshire, was put out to tender in April last year and is not due to be completed until the end of the 2021-2022 school year. 

But the opposition has pointed to advice from Sage experts in May 2020 – 11 months before the tender went out – that ventilation and other measures would be vital in order to keep schools open safely. 

Both the winter of 2020/21 and 21/22 have seen complaints that schoolchildren have been forced to learn in freezing classrooms due to guidance to leave windows open to allow air to circulate. 

And the majority of Covid restrictions will already have been lifted by the end of the school year. 

Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, said: ‘These revelations expose further dither and delay from the government on basic classroom protections, while schools faced wave after wave of Covid chaos.

‘Now, 20 months on from scientists’ first warnings, children are still being forced to learn in cold classrooms. Ministers are treating our children as an afterthought and it cannot continue.

‘The Education Secretary must urgently get a grip of this situation and get a practical ventilation plan in place that keeps children learning together in class.’

Labour today lashed out at a delay of almost a year between scientists first warning the Government of the importance of good airflow in school spaces and the launch of a pilot scheme to work out how to improve it.

Labour today lashed out at a delay of almost a year between scientists first warning the Government of the importance of good airflow in school spaces and the launch of a pilot scheme to work out how to improve it.

Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, said: 'Now, 20 months on from scientists' first warnings, children are still being forced to learn in cold classrooms'

Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, said: ‘Now, 20 months on from scientists’ first warnings, children are still being forced to learn in cold classrooms’

In an answer to a written parliamentary question by shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson about the pilot scheme, the Vaccines and Public Health Minister Maggie Throup said: 'The tender was published 28 April 2021, with contracts awarded to the successful bidders in July 2021. The trial is ongoing and will continue to the end of the school year 2021/2022.'

In an answer to a written parliamentary question by shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson about the pilot scheme, the Vaccines and Public Health Minister Maggie Throup said: ‘The tender was published 28 April 2021, with contracts awarded to the successful bidders in July 2021. The trial is ongoing and will continue to the end of the school year 2021/2022.’

Unions lash out at ‘micro-management’ in mask row 

Furious teaching unions today accused Whitehall of trying to ‘micromanage’ schools after Cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi emailed MPs saying he will personally vet any plans to bring back masks in classrooms.

The Education Secretary last night said that local officials would seek to persuade individual schools to abandon masks.

He insisted that ‘face-to-face education for all students has consistently been my priority’, adding: ‘National guidance to wear face coverings in communal areas will also be removed in line with the national move out of Plan B. This applies to all schools’.

But in a letter to MPs, he admitted that masks could be reintroduced in the event of an ‘extraordinary’ local Covid outbreak.

The NEU’s Dr Mary Bousted today raged that ministers seeking to ‘micromanage such decisions seems utterly unnecessary, if not bizarre’. 

It came as schools across England were in open rebellion against the Government over masks after more than 100 head teachers wrote to parents warning that children must continue wearing face coverings in classrooms.

Union bosses stoked the fires of revolt this week after accusing Boris Johnson of flouting his ‘duty of care’ to teachers over the new guidance on masks.

The Prime Minister this week announced an easing of Covid curbs, from WFH guidance to face coverings and Covid isolation, as the Omicron wave subsides.

But critics have claimed that Mr Johnson is axing virus restrictions to appease his Tory backbench and save his own skin as he fights for his political career amid the dramatic fallout from ‘Partygate’.

Schools are defying the Government’s anti-mask guidance and telling parents that pupils must continue to wear face coverings.

 

Minutes of a Sage meeting on May 19, 2020, when schools had already been closed by then education secretary Gavin Williamson, show that they advised that ‘opening schools … safely would require a significant effort to ensure that environments are appropriate to minimise transmission (for example distancing, hygiene measures, and ventilation). Systems to evaluate this, and, potentially, enforcements mechanisms will be required’.

Two months later, in July 2020, in a paper on the airborne spread of Covid indoors, the advisory group warned: ‘Particular attention should be paid to planning for winter to ensure that spaces can be effectively ventilated without significantly compromising the thermal comfort of occupants.’

But in an answer to a written parliamentary question by shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson about the pilot scheme, the Vaccines and Public Health Minister Maggie Throup said: ‘The tender was published 28 April 2021, with contracts awarded to the successful bidders in July 2021. The trial is ongoing and will continue to the end of the school year 2021/2022.’

Thirty schools in Bradford are testing air purifiers and UV lights in classrooms as part of a £1.75 Covid-fighting trial run by the UK Heath Security Agency (UKHSA).

It will assess whether they curb the spread of the coronavirus and other respiratory diseases and hopes to gauge how feasible it is to implement the technologies in primary schools. 

The randomised trial sees 10 schools equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, 10 with UV purifiers and 10 without any equipment to serve as a control group.

Guidance from the Health and Safety Executive says fog, mist, vapour and ultraviolet treatments ‘may be suitable options to help control the spread of coronavirus and disinfecting a larger space or room’. 

At the time the pilot was launched, then schools minister Nick Gibb was asked if it would be rolled out more widely, telling the BBC: ‘Ventilation has been a key part of the guidance we provided to schools about how to keep schools safe and to minimise the risk of transmission, as well as hygiene and all the staggered starts and so on in schools.

‘Ventilation, right from the beginning, was an important part of that process and it remains actually part of our guidance to schools.

‘We are looking at air purifiers – that’s what the pilot in Bradford is about. We are also looking at CO2 monitors, to see whether that’s an effective way of helping schools to monitor the quality of the air.’

The Department of Health and UKHSA have been approached for comment. 

It came as Boris Johnson urged teachers who insist masks are still worn in lessons to follow the rules that no longer require their use in classrooms.

Head teachers in England are set to ignore the Prime Minister’s bonfire of Plan B restrictions by compelling pupils to wear face coverings in classrooms.

Britain’s big teaching unions have accused the embattled Tory leader of making the decision to save his own political career as he handles the fallout from ‘Partygate’, rather than basing it on ‘sound public health and scientific advice’.

The National Education Union warned against lifting Omicron measures ‘too quickly’, claiming it could lead to ‘more disruption’ for schools.

Today a No10 spokesman said: ‘Children have been one of the hardest hit as a result of the disruption throughout the pandemic and we recognise the impact it has had on their education.

‘The Prime Minister believes it is vital that children are receiving face-to-face education and can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom and the Prime Minister also thinks that the schools should follow the latest guidance.

‘We’ve been clear that we removed the requirement for face masks to be worn in classrooms and we will remove advice for face masks to be worn in communal areas from January 27.’

Covid infections are rising among primary school children in England, official data shows in what could be a sign of the back-to-school effect.

Statisticians at the Office for National Statistics estimated eight per cent of youngsters aged two to 11 had Covid on any given day in the week to January 15, the equivalent of one in 13, up slightly from 7 per cent the week prior.

The rate, based on swabs taken from 160,000 people across the country, is the highest of all other age groups, with 20 to 34-year-olds having the next highest rate (one in 17).

While rates are falling or flatlining in every other age group they are still climbing in children. Just five per cent of under-12s were thought to have the virus a month earlier.

It comes after children returned to classrooms on January 4 after a two-week break over the festive period.

Despite the rising infections in primary school and nursery-aged children, the ONS found that infections fell across England for the first time since Omicron took off last week. It estimated around 2.9million people were infected on any given day in the week to January 15, a ‘welcome decrease’ from the record 3.7m the previous week. 

The ONS survey is regarded as the most reliable indicator of the UK’s outbreak because it uses random sampling of around 100,000 people, rather than relying on people coming forward to be tested. 


SAGE has acknowledged that its terrifying Omicron hospital admission projections were off the mark — and it is now warning of a ‘long tail’ of infections as the UK comes out of the fourth wave.

As recently as December 23, modelling by the Government’s scientific advisory group said there could be up to 10,000 daily Covid hospitalisations by mid-January. In reality, daily admissions peaked at just over 2,000 across the UK and are already falling in England, which has given the Prime Minister confidence to lift Plan B restrictions next week.

At SAGE’s most recent meeting last Thursday, chaired by Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the group admitted the anticipated surge in hospitalisations had ‘not been seen so far’. 

The panel put this down to a combination of the country’s ‘highly immunised population’, vaccine protection waning slower than expected and ‘precautionary behaviours’ in vulnerable people. 

In the minutes, which were made public today, members also acknowledged that official projections of more than a million daily Omicron cases had also not come to fruition. SAGE said that behavioural changes, this time among younger age groups, may have ‘led to lower modelled numbers of infections of infections over recent weeks’.  

A slew of international studies and mobility data over the last two years of the pandemic have shown that people change how they act and who they meet in the face of rising cases.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that failing to factor in more accurate behavioural changes seen throughout the pandemic was one of the biggest reasons the models are ‘overly pessimistic’.

As well as leaving out behavioural changes, a number of the projections published in December failed to adjust for Omicron’s reduced severity — despite real-world South African clearly showing the variant caused milder illness.

In a separate document published today, the SPI-M modelling group that feeds into SAGE also said the Omicron wave of infections had not peaked due to natural immunity but rather down to people being cautious. It warned this means there are still swathes of people who have avoided the virus over the last eight weeks and therefore remain susceptible to getting infected.

As recently as December 23, modelling by the Government's scientific advisory group said there could be up to 10,000 daily Covid hospitalisations by mid-January. The doomsday scenario was presented in a model by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

As recently as December 23, modelling by the Government’s scientific advisory group said there could be up to 10,000 daily Covid hospitalisations by mid-January. The doomsday scenario was presented in a model by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 

Warwick University's infection, hospitalisation and death projections on December 30: The group warned of up to 1.4million daily infections, 10,000 hospital admissions and nearly 3,000 deaths based on various level of restrictions and Omicron being 50 per cent less severe than Delta

Warwick University’s infection, hospitalisation and death projections on December 30: The group warned of up to 1.4million daily infections, 10,000 hospital admissions and nearly 3,000 deaths based on various level of restrictions and Omicron being 50 per cent less severe than Delta

LSHTM's estimates based on the degree of immunity escape that Omicron might show and booster effectiveness

LSHTM’s estimates based on the degree of immunity escape that Omicron might show and booster effectiveness

Acknowledging the collapsing Omicron rates, the SAGE minutes read: ‘The increase in hospitalisations, which is anticipated following the observed increase in cases in older age groups, has not been seen so far. 

‘This may be due to higher vaccine levels of protection against hospitalisation, slower waning of vaccine protection, or the impact of precautionary behaviours amongst the most vulnerable and those around them.

‘Analysis from Bristol shows that intended behaviour change over December 2021 has led to lower modelled numbers of infections over recent weeks (compared to no such risk mitigation).’ 

SAGE added there was still ‘uncertainty about what may happen to hospital admissions over the coming weeks’ with case rates still high — around 90,000 Britons are testing positive every day.

Covid outbreaks receded in ALL of England’s 150 local authorities last week 

Covid outbreaks fell in all of England’s 150 local authorities last week, official figures showed today as separate data showed cases fell a fifth overall. 

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed infections fell by at least 12 per cent in all areas of the country during the week up to January 16.

The sharpest drop off was in Wigan, which saw its case rate fall 59 per cent from 2,121 per 100,000 to 867 per 100,000 over the seven days.

Meanwhile, King’s College London scientists estimated 144,527 people were catching the virus on any given day in Britain in the week to January 17, down from 183,364 in the previous seven-day spell. Outbreaks are shrinking in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as every region of England, while cases are falling in every age group except under-18s because of the ‘back to school’ effect, the survey found. 

The findings are in line with the Office for National Statistics’ weekly infection survey which also found Covid cases plunged in England by a fifth last week. 

Professor Tim Spector, who leads the symptom study, heralded the encouraging trend but urged the nation to be ‘sensible’ because cases remained high.

Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist and former Government Covid adviser, told MailOnline that advisers must be ‘quite careful this doesn’t just become a sort of simplistic excuse for “it’s all down to behaviour, and we can’t predict that”.’

He accepted it was difficult and makes modelling more complicated when factoring in nuanced elements like how often someone leaves the house, uses public transport or interacts with others.

But he added: ‘But the [SAGE] modellers don’t seem to have had a serious discussion with people in other fields. Sociologists and economists do modelling, there are people out there who do understand this stuff. 

‘People are beginning to realise that these models are [done by] the very narrow respiratory disease community… so their models haven’t really incorporated things others people know about.’

In SPI-M’s consensus statement, made last Wednesday but only published today, the group claimed Omicron infections had not peaked naturally.

‘As yet, there is no sign of a purely immunity-driven peak occurring in either the case data or the CIS for the UK or England.

‘Peaks of infections have often been asymmetric in nature during Covid with many more than half of infections happening during the population decline stage and so a long tail may still need managing, even after the peak.’

But SPI-M expressed more optimism about what will happen in hospitals in the coming weeks, highlighting that there has been a ‘much lower case fatality rate than those seen in previous waves of the epidemic’.

The statement adds: ‘This is highly likely a result of the combination of omicron’s decreased intrinsic severity and high vaccine effectiveness.’ 

Professor Hunter told MailOnline that SAGE ‘should have’ been able to factor in some extra behavioural changes because there is ‘a lot of information on behavioural changes in response to rising infections out there’.

But Professor Hunter said he suspected natural immunity was not being properly factored into the models either.

He referenced Professor Lockdown Neil Ferguson’s forecast of 250,000 Covid deaths without a lockdown in 2020 and said it was ‘not that unrealistic’.

But Professor Hunter believes the projections have become worse over time because we are not properly accounting for protection from natural immunity.

He added: ‘Models worked well at start of the pandemic. I think a lot of that stick [aimed at Professor Ferguson’s 250,000 deaths model] was unfounded and over the top. 

‘But modelling endemic infections is more complicated than modelling epidemics. [SAGE is] Not good at modelling immunity.

‘They need to look at assumptions around immunity and talk to people who have a track record in modelling immunity better.’


Britain’s daily Covid cases fell by a single percent in a week today in an early hint that the recent dramatic plunge in Omicron might be starting to level off.

Government dashboard data shows there were another 107,364 positive tests across the country in the past 24 hours, down only slightly on the 109,133 last week.

It is technically the 15th day in a row that cases have fallen week-on-week but today’s weekly drop is the smallest in that time. The new figure brings average daily cases to around 92,000, which is half the number a fortnight ago.

SAGE warned today there could be a ‘long tail’ of infections as the UK comes out of the fourth wave that will ‘still need managing’.

But plateauing hospital admission rates and the growing disconnect between infections and deaths has given the Prime Minister the confidence to lift Plan B restrictions next week. 

Boris Johnson has also revealed he intends to ditch all Covid laws by the spring, including compulsory isolation for positive Covid cases. WFH guidance and masks in schools were the first measures to be officially ditched today.  

Doubling down on the Government’s decision to scrap the curbs, Sajid Javid signalled that ministers are prepared to tolerate more than 20,000 Covid deaths a year without reimposing measures.

There were another 330 Covid fatalities registered today in a 1.5 per cent fall compared to last Thursday. Latest hospital data shows there were 1,905 Covid admissions on January 16, down 13 per cent on the week prior. 

Mr Javid, the Health Secretary, told Sky News earlier: ‘We need to learn to live with it. Sadly people die of flu as well. In a bad flu year, you can sadly lose about 20,000 lives.

‘But we don’t shut down our entire country and put in place lots of restrictions to deal with it. We need to continue with our lives with sensible, appropriate and proportionate measures.’

He added: ‘Covid is not going away. It’s going to be with us for many many years, perhaps forever, and we have to learn to live with it.’  

Despite today’s slowing, official data shows Covid outbreaks fell in all of England’s 150 local authorities last week.

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) bosses confirmed infection rates fell by at least 12 per cent in every council area of the country during the week up to January 16. 

The sharpest drop off was in Wigan, which saw its case rate fall 59 per cent from 2,121 positive tests per 100,000 people in the previous seven-day spell to 867 per 100,000. 

Meanwhile, King’s College London scientists estimated 144,527 people were catching the virus on any given day in Britain in the week to January 17, down a fifth on the previous week. Outbreaks are shrinking in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as every region of England, while cases are falling in every age group except under-18s because of the ‘back to school’ effect, the survey found. 

Both findings are in line with the Office for National Statistics’ weekly infection survey, which also found Covid cases plunged in England by a fifth last week.

Professor Tim Spector, who leads the symptom study, heralded the encouraging trend but urged the nation to be ‘sensible’ because cases remained high. 

But Mr Javid told people to remain cautious, saying he would continue to wear a mask in shops because Covid cases remained high. He also said they would be ‘sensible’ to use on the London Underground.   

Covid outbreaks fell in all of England's 150 local authorities last week, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data showed today. Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to January 9 (left)
Covid outbreaks fell in all of England's 150 local authorities last week, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data showed today. Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to January 9 (left)

Covid outbreaks fell in all of England’s 150 local authorities last week, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data showed today. Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to January 9 (left)

Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to January 2 (left)
Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to January 2 (left)

Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to January 2 (left) 

Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to December 26 (left)
Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to December 26 (left)

Map shows: The percentage week-on-week change in infection rate across English local authorities in the week ending January 16 (right) compared to December 26 (left)

Infections fell in all regions across the country last week. Confirmed infections fell by at least 12 per cent in all areas of the country during the week up to January 16

Infections fell in all regions across the country last week. Confirmed infections fell by at least 12 per cent in all areas of the country during the week up to January 16

The UKHSA data shows cases fell in all age groups other than children aged four-years-old and younger as well as those aged five to nine

The UKHSA data shows cases fell in all age groups other than children aged four-years-old and younger as well as those aged five to nine

King's College London scientists estimated 144,527 people were catching the virus on any given day in Britain in the week to January 17, down from 183,364 in the previous seven-day spell

King’s College London scientists estimated 144,527 people were catching the virus on any given day in Britain in the week to January 17, down from 183,364 in the previous seven-day spell 

Commuters head to work as WFH is scrapped 

Commuters in England headed back into offices today after Boris Johnson dramatically scrapped all Covid Plan B restrictions – although city centres are unlikely to get back to normal for some time with some companies expected to wait months before bringing staff back in.

Road congestion levels in London were at 72 per cent in the morning rush hour between 8am and 9am today, slightly up from 71 per cent yesterday but a bigger rise on 66 per cent last Thursday, according to TomTom.

But it was more a mixed picture in other cities, with rush hour morning congestion in Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle down compared to yesterday and last Thursday – while the figure in Manchester and Sheffield was down from yesterday but up on last Thursday.

Transport for London said Underground usage this morning to 10am increased by 8 per cent compared to last Thursday, with 1.09million entries and exits, while buses were up 3 per cent in a week with 1.19million taps.

The Prime Minister has demanded civil servants get back to the office and set an example to the country after lifting working from home restrictions yesterday – but they appear to still be avoiding going into work.

When pressed by MailOnline if staff have returned to the office, a Home Office spokesman confirmed he was still WFH. He refused to say if he has received an email from senior mandarins telling civil servants to come back to Whitehall. He added that guidance throughout the pandemic had explicitly discouraged civil servants from ‘coming into the office under any circumstances’.

The Department of Health and Social Care refused to say if staff have returned to the office. A spokesman from the FDA union representing civil servants did not know if mandarins had been instructed to come back in.

It comes as FDA general secretary Dave Penman tweeted today: ‘It’s insulting because the PM said ‘back to work’ when everyone’s continued to work hard whether from home or the office. And it’s a strange world when Tory ministers feel able to lecture private enterprise on how to run their businesses.’ 

The King’s College London study — which is also run by health data science company ZOE — is based on daily reports from more than 800,000 Britons on their symptoms and around 46,000 test results.

Broken down, one in 26 people were estimated to have had Covid in England and Northern Ireland in the most recent week. 

They were followed by Wales, one in 30, while Scotland had the smallest outbreak, one in 35.

Professor Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College, said: ‘It’s great to see cases falling rapidly. In just two weeks, the number of new cases per day has fallen around 31 per cent from its peak of over 211,000 to under 145,000.

‘New cold-like symptoms are now again slightly more likely to just be a cold and not Covid. 

‘While it is easy to think the worst is over, our health service is still not functioning properly, and complacency will inevitably lead to trouble. The ZOE data is already showing an uptick in symptomatic cases in children due to the back to school effect. 

‘With cases still high and restrictions being lifted, we’ll just have to hope that people remain sensible, their households are triple vaccinated, and regardless of official advice, that everyone knows to isolate and self test when experiencing cold-like symptoms.’

Amid the lifting of work from home guidance, traffic levels on London’s roads ticked up six per cent this morning compared to the same time last week.

And the number of people on the London Underground rose by eight per cent. 

Face masks have been lifted in schools from today, and will be lifted in shops and on public transport from January 26.

But London Mayor Sadiq Khan has said they will still be compulsory on Tubes and buses in the capital. 

The Health Secretary accepted that masks were necessary in busy enclosed spaces like a local shop or on the Tube, as he said he would continue to wear one for at least the next week because cases remained high.

Mr Javid told BBC Breakfast: ‘Will I be wearing a face mask? Yeah, I think I probably would be in a week’s time.

‘Because prevalence is still high and there will be people there, especially if I am going to my local shop which is small and enclosed and can have quite a few people in there at one time in quite a small space, I don’t know most of those people, I think that would be sensible.

‘I think it will be sensible on the tube in London, for example – quite an enclosed space.

‘People will be asked to make their own personal judgment just as we do in fighting flu.’

The Prime Minister also announced his intention to scrap compulsory self-isolation for positive Covid cases.

He said he planned to allow the rule to lapse on March 24 and said that date could be brought forward if the situation remains stable.

The PM told MPs in the House of Commons more than 90 per cent of over-60s across the UK had now had booster vaccines to protect them, and scientists believed the Omicron wave had peaked.

He said the Government had taken a ‘different path’ to much of Europe and the ‘data are showing that, time and again, this Government got the toughest decisions right’.  

It comes after Office for National Statistics’ weekly report yesterday found cases had plummeted by a fifth in England last week in yet more confirmation that Omicron is on its way out. 

The gold standard report found around 2.9million people were infected on any given day in the week to January 15, a ‘welcome decrease’ from the record 3.7m the previous week.

It marks the first week that the ONS has recorded a fall in infections since Omicron first took off in late November and the downward trend now matches the Government’s daily stats. 

The ONS survey is regarded as the most reliable indicator of the UK’s outbreak because it uses random sampling of around 100,000 people, rather than relying on people coming forward to be tested. 

The UK recorded 108,069 new positive Covid tests, down 16.6 per cent on last Wednesday’s 129,587 and the 14th day in a row that cases have been down week-on-week.

Fatalities were down 9.8 per cent, with 359 deaths recorded today, ad hospitalisations fell 14.5 per cent to 1,752 on Saturday, the latest date data is available for. 


Furious MPs today slammed No10 for its ‘despicable’ reliance on ‘hysterical’ Covid forecasts which have repeatedly driven the nation into living under economically-crippling curbs. 

In a heated Westminster Hall discussion about coronavirus, Conservative Bob Seely called the use of modelling a ‘national scandal’. He argued the projections, peddled by SAGE, created a ‘climate of manipulated fear’. 

Echoing Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speech, Mr Seely said of the modelling: ‘Never before has so much harm been done to so many by so few.’

He also criticised SAGE epidemiologist Professor Ferguson for producing ‘doomsday scenarios’ throughout the pandemic.

The notorious epidemiologist’s first model warning of 500,000 deaths if nothing was done to curb the spread of the virus is widely credited with spooking Boris Johnson into announcing the first lockdown in March 2020.

Mr Seely argued this prediction followed a long line of inaccurate models produced by Imperial College London — where Professor Ferguson works — that have caused radical policies, starting with the mass culling of millions of animals during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001.

He was joined by the Covid Recovery Group deputy chair Steve Baker, who accused modellers of bouncing No10 into restrictions throughout the pandemic. 

But the debate erupted when SNP MP Brendan O’Hara accused the politicians of not wearing face masks in the hall. It led to MPs being told to calm down during an angry shouting match.  

Covid Recovery Group deputy chair Steve Baker accused modellers of bouncing No10 into restrictions throughout the pandemic.

Conservative Bob Seely called for a debate on scientific modelling during the pandemic in which he accused forecasters of wildly inaccurate predictions.

Conservative Bob Seely (right) called for a debate on scientific modelling during the pandemic in which he accused forecasters of wildly inaccurate predictions. He was joined by the Covid Recovery Group deputy chair Steve Baker (left), who accused modellers of bouncing No10 into restrictions throughout the pandemic.

They slammed 'Professor Lockdown' Neil Ferguson (pictured) for 'hysterical forecasts' that have created a 'national scandal'

They slammed ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson (pictured) for ‘hysterical forecasts’ that have created a ‘national scandal’

‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson admits his doomsday predictions may have been ‘oversimplified’ 

Professor Neil Ferguson described how he had become ‘something of a marmite figure’ as he admitted he ‘made mistakes’ and ‘oversimplified things’ during the pandemic.

The Imperial College epidemiologist, whose initial modelling helped shape Britain’s Covid response, said while it had been challenging for most Western governments to act in a timely manner the science throughout the crisis ‘had basically been right’.

However the scientist, nicknamed ‘Professor Lockdown’, admitted he had ‘made mistakes for which he apologised for’ as he spoke of the public scrutiny that his private life had come under.

He also described how there had been ‘a lot of political opposition’ as he and scientists spoke of case numbers rising and the hospitalisations and deaths that would follow if action wasn’t taken last year.

The scientist’s comments come after he resigned from the government’s scientific advisory group (SAGE) last year after claims emerged that Antonia Staats, who was reported to be his lover, visited him at home – in breach of lockdown rules. 

Mr Seely said: ‘Thanks to some questionable modelling, poorly presented and often misrepresented, I think it is true to say that never before has so much harm been done to so many by so few based on so little, questionable, potentially flawed data.

‘I believe the use of data is pretty much getting up there for national scandal. 

‘This is not just the fault of the modellers but it’s how their work was interpreted by public health officials, by the media and yes, by politicians and sadly by Government too.

‘Modelling and forecasts were the ammunition that drove lockdown and created a climate of manipulated fear. 

‘I believe that creation of fear was pretty despicable and pretty unforgivable.’

He said Professor Ferguson’s models back in 2001 — which have since been harshly criticised by other experts — led to millions of animals being unnecessarily slaughtered because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Britain.

The second stage of the ‘scandal’, he said, was Professor Ferguson’s intervention prior to the March 23 lockdown in 2020.

Professor Ferguson’s Imperial modelling team released a paper on March 16 claiming Covid deaths could spiral to 500,000 if restrictions were not implemented. 

Imperial later released studies suggesting lockdown had saved hundreds of thousands of lives, which amounted to ‘marking their own homework’, Mr Steely said. 

He cited experts in Sweden who described the modelling as ‘almost hysterical’. 

And the third stage came this winter when Professor Ferguson’s team, along with modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and University of Warwick, projected further thousands of deaths and NHS admissions because of the Omicron variant.

Meanwhile, Mr Baker said Professor Ferguson’s death projections ‘disgracefully’ bounced Mr Johnson into a lockdown.

He said: ‘This is no way to do policy, but the reason someone — we won’t speculate who — bounced the Prime Minister is because they’d been shown those terrifying death projections.

‘They couldn’t possibly be tolerated [but] they were wrong.’ 

SAGE’s models have been criticised several times in the past for overegging the UK’s Covid trajectory. 

Advocates of modelling insist it’s impossible to tell whether or not grim predictions made early on in the pandemic would have been accurate because lockdowns were used to stop thousands dying unnecessarily. 

However, the most recent models from the advisory panel warned that NHS could be overwhelmed by the Omicron wave and that up to 6,000 may die each day. Fatalities never breached 1,500, even in the depths of the second wave.

Despite the gloomy projections, No10 never caved into demands for lockdown and the wave naturally fizzled out on its own. Deaths and hospitalisation levels are just a fraction of previous waves, largely thanks to the country’s hugely successful vaccine roll-out.

Meanwhile, Mr O’Hara stoked tensions in Westminster Hall when he described the Conservative MPs of a ‘libertarian pile-on’.

He said: ‘I will not be participating in the libertarian pile-on led by people who I must say even in these circumstances, in a chamber as small as this, still do not use face coverings.’ 

Mr O’Hara refused to give way to a rebuttal from Mr Baker, saying: ‘I think the libertarian right have had enough of a kick of the ball in this debate.’ 

At the end of his speech, Tory MPs shouted ‘shame’, with Sir Edward Leigh forced to tell them to calm down.

It came as the UK’s daily Covid cases dropped for the 13th day in a row today and hospital admissions have now started to trend downwards as it emerged the Prime Minister is drawing up plans to ditch all coronavirus laws from as early as March. 

There were 94,432 new positive tests across the country in the last 24 hours, Government dashboard data shows, which marked a 22 per cent fall compared to last Tuesday. Cases have fallen week-on-week on every day since January 6.

In more confirmation that the Omicron wave is subsiding, new figures show that hospital admissions from the virus have dropped for three days in a row nationally.

There were 1,892 admissions on January 14, the most recent date with data, which marked a 4 per cent decrease on the previous week. Admissions have been in dropping for weeks in London, which became the country’s Omicron epicentre last month.

Deaths continued to trend upwards today, however, with 438 registered in the last 24 hours — the most since late February 2021. 

There are currently an average of 270 Covid deaths per day in the UK now at what is believed to be the peak of the Omicron wave – a far cry from the 1,200 at the worst of Alpha last January.

The promising statistics come as a senior Government source claimed ministers are seriously considering abandoning all legally-binding curbs in England and moving to a guidance-based system.

The official claimed even the most basic rules could go, such as compulsory self-isolation of cases and the requirement to co-operate with Test and Trace. 

Emergency Covid laws brought in at the start of the pandemic are due to expire in March if they are not renewed as part of a timetable set out before Omicron hit.  

Ministers are already planning to ditch Plan B curbs brought in last month to fight the highly-transmissible variant, with Covid passports and WFH guidance expected to be scrapped later this month. 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid today revealed he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that the final Plan B curbs can be ‘substantially reduced’ next week when ministers review No10’s next steps. 

Mr Johnson is said to have taken huge confidence from the country’s collapsing case numbers and flatlining hospital rates that the UK can safely live with Covid. 

He will finalise the plans to let coronavirus laws expire over the coming weeks, with an announcement on which measurers will be dropped expected in March, according to the Guardian.

The embattled PM has laid out a number of other Tory-friendly policies to appease backbench MPs as he faces calls to resign over parties in No10 during lockdown.

It came as Nicola Sturgeon finally agreed to lift remaining Covid restrictions brought in to combat the Omicron variant, admitting the country was on the ‘downward slope’ of infections.

From next Monday, January 24, bars and restaurants will no longer only be able to serve customers seated at tables, while social distancing will also be removed. Nightclubs will also be allowed to reopen as she sweeps away restrictions in place since before Christmas, while plans to extend the Covid passport scheme have been scrapped.

Attendance limits on indoor events will also be lifted – bringing them into line with outdoor events in a move that came into effect yesterday. However baseline coronavirus measures in place before the Omicron wave will remain, including masks are still legally required indoors and on public transport.


Daily UK Covid cases dropped below 100,000 for the first time in weeks today as infections fell for the ninth day in a row — but SAGE modellers are already warning of an ‘exit wave’ this summer.

Another 99,652 positive tests were logged in the last 24 hours, according to Government dashboard data, marking a 44 per cent fall on the figure last week. Covid cases are now falling in every region of England and all four home nations in another sign that the Omicron wave is on its way out.

Daily hospitalisations have also remained flat with 2,423 new admissions on January 10, the latest date with data, down by less than a per cent on the previous week. 

Sources say ministers intend to scrap Covid passports and widespread WFH guidance in England when Plan B restrictions are reviewed at the end of the month, with the promising numbers making the curbs ‘hard to justify’.  

However, deaths — which are the biggest lagging indicator — are creeping up. Another 270 were registered today in a 17 per cent rise compared to last Friday. But rising immunity means there are five times fewer fatalities now compared to the second wave last January, helped by the intrinsically milder Omicron variant.

Despite the encouraging data, official modelling made public today has warned there may be a massive rebound in Covid cases and hospitalisations this summer.

In a research paper submitted to No10’s scientific advisory group (SAGE) last week, the team at Warwick University projected up to 10,000 daily admissions in an absolute worst-case scenario.

The modellers admit that they cannot predict the summer wave ‘with any certainty’, but they are confident there will be a resurgence between May and July ‘due to increased mixing and waning vaccine immunity’.

They add: ‘Precise timing and magnitude of this exit wave is highly dependent on both population behaviour and the scale of the current wave and cannot be predicted with any certainty.’ 

Government modelling has been criticised throughout the pandemic but there has been intensified scrutiny this winter after several gloomy Omicron projections.

The UK Health Security Agency was censured by the country’s statistics watchdog over a model which had up to a million Britons catching Omicron per day at the peak. Another model, by Professor Lockdown Neil Ferguson, suggested there could be 5,000 deaths from Omicron per day without tougher lockdown curbs. 

Another 99,652 Britons tested positive for the virus in the last 24 hours, according to Government dashboard data, marking a 44 per cent fall on the figure last week

Another 99,652 Britons tested positive for the virus in the last 24 hours, according to Government dashboard data, marking a 44 per cent fall on the figure last week

Daily hospital admissions have also remained flat with 2,423 new admissions on January 10, the latest date with data, which was down by less than a per cent on the previous week

Daily hospital admissions have also remained flat with 2,423 new admissions on January 10, the latest date with data, which was down by less than a per cent on the previous week

Daily Covid deaths — which are a lagging indicator — have been creeping up for several weeks.Another 270 were registered today in a 17 per cent weekly rise

Daily Covid deaths — which are a lagging indicator — have been creeping up for several weeks.Another 270 were registered today in a 17 per cent weekly rise

Despite the encouraging statistics, official modelling has warned there could be a huge rebound in Covid cases and hospitalisations this summer. The modellers admit that they cannot predict the summer wave 'with any certainty' but they are certain there will be a fresh wave between May and July 'due to increased mixing and waning vaccine immunity'

Despite the encouraging statistics, official modelling has warned there could be a huge rebound in Covid cases and hospitalisations this summer. The modellers admit that they cannot predict the summer wave ‘with any certainty’ but they are certain there will be a fresh wave between May and July ‘due to increased mixing and waning vaccine immunity’

January 2
January 9

UK Health Security Agency figures showed Covid cases were falling in 87 per cent of England’s areas last week, or 129 out of 149 local authorities. For comparison, in the previous seven-day spell (left) cases were only falling in 15 council areas

The latest model by Warwick was submitted to SAGE on January 6 but only made public today as part of the advisory group’s weekly batch of evidence.

Warwick makes clear that its scenarios are not predictions and the wide confidence intervals highlight the uncertainty about how the outbreak will transpire.

The team modelled different rates of social mixing, waning immunity, severity of disease and the generation time of the virus – how long it takes a newly infected Covid case to infect someone else. 

It found there could be anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 daily hospitalisations, according to the upper end of some confidence intervals.

Meanwhile, data from the Government’s shows that, in England, daily infections have dropped nationwide week-on-week for the last seven days.

Infections were only rising in the North East, but latest Government figures show they are now mirroring the rest of the country. 

Fascinating maps show how the virus is burning itself out nationally, with cases falling in roughly 87 per cent of local authorities in the last week.

The North East had become an Omicron hotspot in recent weeks after the outbreak migrated north, and it is home to seven of the 10 local authorities with the biggest outbreaks. 

One in 40 people (2.6 per cent) living in the region tested positive in the most recent week, higher than any other point in the pandemic.

England is now preparing to ease the restrictions that were brought in to fight Omicron, according to reports. 

A record 3.7million people were infected with Covid on any day last week in England — but cases were slowing nationally, the country's gold-standard Office for National Statistics' surveillance study has found

A record 3.7million people were infected with Covid on any day last week in England — but cases were slowing nationally, the country’s gold-standard Office for National Statistics’ surveillance study has found

Areas in the North West, North East and Yorkshire were hit hardest by the new variant last week as it began to burn itself out in London and the south

Areas in the North West, North East and Yorkshire were hit hardest by the new variant last week as it began to burn itself out in London and the south 

The percentage of people who were carrying Covid in the UK home nations in the week to January 6

The percentage of people who were carrying Covid in the UK home nations in the week to January 6

NORTH EAST: Pictured above is the Covid infection rate in the North East, showing its cases have started to peak

NORTH EAST: Pictured above is the Covid infection rate in the North East, showing its cases have started to peak

NORTH EAST: The above shows the number of patients being admitted to hospital with Covid every day. In the region it is now at about the same level as it was last winter

NORTH EAST: The above shows the number of patients being admitted to hospital with Covid every day. In the region it is now at about the same level as it was last winter

NORTH EAST: The above shows the number of Covid patients in hospital beds in the region. There are early signs this may be plateauing at a lower level than the previous winter

NORTH EAST: The above shows the number of Covid patients in hospital beds in the region. There are early signs this may be plateauing at a lower level than the previous winter

NORTH EAST: And above is the number of patients with Covid on mechanical ventilator beds. This has not risen in a sign Omicron is milder than its predecessors

NORTH EAST: And above is the number of patients with Covid on mechanical ventilator beds. This has not risen in a sign Omicron is milder than its predecessors

The Health Secretary is said to have told MPs yesterday that vaccine passports could be scrapped by the end of this month, and ministers are considering ditching work from home guidance. Both are set to be reviewed on January 26. 

Self-isolation will be cut to five days on Monday for vaccinated people who test positive, with Sajid Javid saying the move will make the UK the ‘freest in Europe’.   

Record 4.3MILLION Brits had Covid last week, ONS surveillance shows

A record 4.3million Britons were thought to have been carrying Covid last week.

Latest Office for National Statistics surveillance shows that areas in the North West, North East and Yorkshire were hit hardest by the new variant as it began to burn itself out in London and the south. 

More than 10 per cent of people tested positive in the seven days to January 6 in the worst-affected places, including Bury, the Wirral, West Lancashire, Burnley, Rochdale and Solihull.

An interactive map was published as part of the weekly report, which found infections hit new highs in all four home nations.

One in 15 people were estimated to have been infectious on any given day last week in England, while the rate was one in 20 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Even though infections continued to grow in the most recent week, the 14 per cent rise is the smallest increase since Omicron became dominant at the start of December. 

The slowing down in infections is in line with a growing body of evidence showing the Omicron wave is subsiding. 

More up-to-date Government dashboard data shows that cases are now falling in every country in the UK and every region of England. Daily admissions also appear to have plateaued across Britain. 

UK Health Security Agency scientists calculate the infection rate across England’s regions using the number of positive swabs recorded over the previous seven days.

Its latest figures, up to January 8, show that cases are now falling in all region’s day-on-day, and in five of them — the East Midlands, East of England, London, North West and South East — they are falling week-on-week.

The North East (2,572.4) is still the country’s Covid hotspot, recording the most cases per 100,000 people, but they are now starting to point downwards.

The second-highest infection rate was in the North West (2,132.6), followed by Yorkshire and the Humber (1,977.5) and the West Midlands (1,785.6).

At the other end of the scale was the South West (1,270.2), the South East (1,374.1) and the East of England (1,460.7). London had the sixth highest infection rate (1,526.5).

In a sign the North East’s drop is genuine and not down to a change in testing its PCR positivity rate — the proportion of swabs that detect the virus — has also started to fall.

Infection statistics relate to the period before testing rules were changed so that Britons who test positive using a lateral flow no longer need to get a confirmatory PCR. But the figures were already dropping before then.

Fewer Covid tests were also carried out over the festive period, skewing official numbers slightly. 

But swabbing rates have now picked up to levels seen before Christmas, giving some of the country’s leading experts confidence that the fall in cases is genuine.

Hospitalisations across the North East are yet to drop having reached 390 admissions a day, nearing last winter’s peak of 430. 

But the number of Covid patients in hospital has flattened out in recent days at 3,000 which is around four-fifths of the previous peak, while the numbers on mechanical ventilator beds have barely risen. 

The UK Health Security Agency’s weekly estimate of the R rate today was between 1.1 and 1.5, meaning it has fallen slightly. Last week health chiefs argued that it was at least 1.2. 

But in London the reproduction rate could be as low as 0.7, the team concluded. 

If the figure is below one, it means infections are shrinking. The R number reflects the average amount of people every infected patient passes the virus on to. 

The R rate is, however, a lagging indicator and does not reflect the situation currently. Instead, it paints a clearer picture on how quickly the virus was spreading three weeks ago.

Ministers once put the R rate at the heart of their Covid battle plan. But it is now less crucial because experts care more about hospitalisation and death rates, given the country’s massively successful vaccination roll-out.

At a meeting with Tory MPs yesterday, Mr Javid hailed the ‘encouraging signs’ but warned that hospitals remained under ‘significant pressure’, The Times reports.

Currently, people in England need to show proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow to enter large events and nightclubs.

A Whitehall source told the paper: ‘There was always a very high threshold for the policy and it looks increasingly likely in a couple of weeks that threshold won’t be met. The way cases are going it will be hard to justify renewing.’

The UK Government faced its biggest Tory revolt since the start of the pandemic over the introduction of Plan B measures last month, with more than 100 Conservatives voting against them.

The PM’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost dramatically resigned in protest over the rollout of the curbs. Yesterday he slammed the ‘Covid theatre’ of masks and passes, and called lockdown a ‘serious mistake’.

The Times reports that it is unlikely that Covid passes will be renewed if the Department of Health argues that it is no longer needed.

Alicia Kearns, the MP for Rutland and Melton, yesterday pressed the Health Secretary to commit ‘to dropping domestic certification at the earliest possible opportunity’.

He replied: ‘I assure her and the House that as far as I am concerned we will not be keeping domestic certification in place a moment longer than absolutely necessary.’

Former cabinet minister Greg Clark called on Mr Javid to lift the curbs later this month, saying they ‘have an impact beyond Covid as we know’.

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Javid cut the number of days people have to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid in England to five.

The Health Secretary told MPs that UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data showed ‘that around two-thirds of positive cases are no longer infectious by the end of day five’.

He added: ‘After reviewing all of the evidence, we’ve made the decision to reduce the minimum self-isolation period to five full days in England. From Monday, people can test twice before they go — leaving isolation at the start of day six.

‘These two tests are critical to these balanced and proportionate plans, and I’d urge everyone to take advantage of the capacity we have built up in tests so we can restore the freedoms to this country while we’re keeping everyone safe.’ 

It comes after the UK Health Security Agency’s weekly report yesterday revealed that Covid cases fell in 87 per cent of England’s areas last week, or 129 out of 149 local authorities. 

For comparison, it was only dropping in 18 council areas in the previous seven-day spell. 

Its figures — based on national testing data — also revealed cases dropped in all age groups except the under-20s, and across all regions except the North East.


One of the Government’s leading Covid modellers today appeared to back Boris Johnson’s plan to ‘ride out’ the Omicron wave as he claimed that imposing more restrictions now would have little effect.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) which feeds into SAGE, said ‘we’re starting to see things turn around’.

He claimed that if measures had been imposed before Christmas they may have reduced the number of infections but admitted restrictions would be ‘much less effective’ now the outbreak may be peaking. However, he refused to rule out needing more curbs if the wave starts to grow again. 

Dr Tildesley pointed to Omicron hotspot London, where infections and hospital admissions appear to be flatlining already, as reason to be optimistic about how the epidemic will play out in the rest of the country.

There were 347 admissions in the capital on New Year’s Day, the latest day with data, down 7 per cent compared to the previous week. It is the second day in a row admissions have fallen week-on-week.

It comes after the Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference last night that England had a ‘chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country’ because it is milder than older strains.

While daily infections are running at record levels — 218,000 people tested positive yesterday — the number of Covid patients in hospital is still a fraction of previous peaks.

There are 15,000 Covid inpatients now compared to nearly 40,000 last January and about a third of current patients are not primarily sick with the virus. Fewer sufferers are also requiring ventilation.

Dr Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, told BBC Breakfast: ‘It does look like we may be in a situation where – we’re getting cases very, very high – but there’s early evidence that things might be turning around in London.

‘The problem, of course, is that if you’re thinking about introducing controls, once you’re beyond the peak of the infection, then that has much less effect.

‘So, our modelling work that was done before Christmas did suggest that early interventions would have had some impact in reducing the number of cases and reducing the pressure on hospitals.

‘But at this point, talking in the early new year when we’re starting to see things turn around, the impact of any interventions being introduced now would be that much less effective.’

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) which feeds into SAGE, questioned the need for more curbs when 'we're starting to see things turn around'

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) which feeds into SAGE, questioned the need for more curbs when ‘we’re starting to see things turn around’

The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that England had a 'chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country' because it is milder than older strains

The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that England had a ‘chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country’ because it is milder than older strains

There are 15,000 Covid inpatients now compared to nearly 40,000 last January, with Omicron sufferers being admitted quicker and presenting with milder illness

There are 15,000 Covid inpatients now compared to nearly 40,000 last January, with Omicron sufferers being admitted quicker and presenting with milder illness

More than a quarter of Covid inpatients on December 28 were not primarily sick with the virus. Fewer sufferers are also requiring ventilation

The above graph shows the proportion of Covid patients needing ventilators while Delta was dominant (November) and after Omicron took hold (late December). It shows the proportion has halved, in yet another sign the disease is milder

The above graph shows the proportion of Covid patients needing ventilators while Delta was dominant (November) and after Omicron took hold (late December). It shows the proportion has halved, in yet another sign the disease is milder

Dr Tildesley’s modelling before Christmas was heavily criticised for being too pessimistic after projecting thousands of daily deaths without any curbs. 

‘The next few days will be really, really key for us to try to identify that – children are going back to school, we’ve had sort of differences in mixing patterns over the Christmas period and we are yet to see what happens in the data as a result of that,’ he said.

Omicron isolation crisis: Warning disruption could last for WEEKS with one in 10 workers off sick as bin collections, care homes and shops continue to be hit by milder wave

Commuters heading into the office in Britain faced travel disruption again during the morning rush hour today with hundreds of trains cancelled as Covid self-isolation rules wreaked havoc on essential services.

The misery of staff shortages that has led to reduced timetables across the UK was compounded by faults with trains and points this morning for those travelling to work across London and Birmingham.

One in ten NHS staff are now off sick or self-isolating with the milder but more contagious Omicron variant – and bin collections have been disrupted in Manchester, Birmingham, London, Cheshire, Essex and Cumbria.

Meanwhile a care home group boss in Yorkshire said the staffing challenge ‘is now at the worst it has been throughout the pandemic’, and school leaders told of their worries that staff shortages could worsen.

And shoppers have described long queues due to a lack of checkout staff and some empty shelves, especially for fresh items such as milk – with Iceland saying its number of staff self -isolating is now 1,000 up on a week ago. The continuing shortage of HGV drivers is also causing problems, leading to fears that some stores may have to shut.

On the trains, there was disruption for those using TfL Rail services between London Paddington and Hayes & Harlington in West London due to a points failure between Hanwell and Southall which was blocking some lines.

There were also delays on the Circle line on the London Underground today due to train cancellations.

Those using Greater Anglia trains from Essex as well as TfL Rail services in East London also faced delays this morning between Romford and London Liverpool Street due to a fault on a train at Stratford.

And in the West Midlands this morning there was disruption on CrossCountry and West Midlands Railway services between Birmingham New Street and Redditch due to a broken down train.

Most operators around Britain have already been forced to slash dozens of daily services due to around one in ten rail staff calling in sick – and some train firms will now run reduced services for several weeks.

TransPennine Express cancelled 24 trains yesterday, and CrossCountry has cut around 50 daily services until next week. LNER has removed 12 services a day on the East Coast Main Line between London and Leeds until Friday.

Southern is not running any services in and out of London Victoria until next Monday while the Gatwick Express, which resumed only three weeks ago after an 18-month closure, has been suspended indefinitely.

ScotRail will cut around 160 trains from its normal 2,000 a day until January 28, meaning fewer services in and out of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Meanwhile Transport for Wales cancelled almost 100 trains, including services between Newport and Crosskeys and Chester and Liverpool Lime Street.

‘The next week or two we’ll have a real indication as to whether we really have peaked and things are starting to turn around, then we’ll have much more information as to what the effectiveness of interventions may or may not have been at this point.’

Dr Tildesley said it was ‘really important that in the longer term we do need to think about living with the virus’, rather than relying on damaging restrictions.

He added: ‘We can’t be having a conversation in two years time about putting in lockdown to deal with whatever might be circulating.

‘We do need to get more into the mindset of how are we going to manage living with the virus and continuing with our lives.

‘Now, the Omicron variant when it emerged of course it was a real concern because it’s very transmissible, which obviously is a huge worry, but much less severe than the Delta variant.

‘If that is the pattern that we will see in the future, then hopefully we will be more into a situation of Covid circulating endemically in the UK, hopefully much milder.

He added: ‘And maybe we have to have vaccination campaigns to protect the vulnerable similar to what we have to do with flu every winter, but we can do this without any restrictions.

‘I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but hopefully once we get beyond this winter wave we can start to think more like that as we move further into 2022.’

There is now an acceptance that Omicron is unlikely to overwhelm the NHS directly, however the sheer volume of people testing positive is putting strain on vital services and businesses. 

Business chiefs have begged the Prime Minister to cut self-isolation as around 1.3million people languish under house arrest and rail services and bin collections grind to a halt.

Mr Johnson is facing mounting pressure to trim the quarantine period again from seven days to five after he gathered his Cabinet ministers to sign off on sticking to ‘Plan B’ restrictions today.

As Parliament returns from its Christmas break, Mr Johnson will face a PMQs grilling this afternoon before making a Covid statement to the House.

Testing rules are set to be loosened in an effort to reduce the pressure on the system, with people who are positive on lateral flows spared having to do a confirmatory PCR.

Meanwhile, travel regulations are also due to be overhauled, axing the requirement for tests before arriving in the UK.

However, the PM has up to now batted away calls for a change on self-isolation, voicing concern it could make the problems worse.

Staff absences are threatening to cripple the country after infections hit another record daily high of 218,000 – meaning nearly 1.3million people have been positive in the past week.

Richard Walker, managing director of the Iceland supermarket chain, warned that although it is coping so far the absentee chart is now ‘almost vertical’ – with levels more than double the peak of the ‘Pingdemic’ last year.

‘I think it is fair to say that business is under strain as never before. This new variant seems to be a lot more contagious and that is having a big impact,’ he told Sky News.

‘My call on government would be firstly to prioritise lateral flow tests for key workers including food retail front line shop workers, but also to revisit the onerous isolation rules.

‘Seven days is a long time for people who are triple jabbed when the symptoms are for the vast majority of people not more than a common cold or mild flu.’

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, also suggested he would support the move as long as it is science-led.

‘If the science says it is possible for people to go back to work earlier, then of course NHS leaders will want that to be possible,’ Mr Taylor said.

The NHS has been hard hit by absences and rising hospitalisations, with Mr Johnson declaring at a Downing Street press conference last night that it is on a ‘war footing’ and a slew of trusts declaring serious incidents.

The PM said now is the moment for ‘utmost caution’, but made clear he is determined to avoid fresh restrictions -stressing Omicron is milder and cases are not translating into the same intensive care demand as previous waves.

The government is expected to say that only people with symptoms should take PCR tests, although those who are asymptomatic and positive on lateral flows should still isolate for at least seven days.

Under the existing rules people are freed at that point as long as they return negative results at least 24 hours apart on days six and seven.

The change appears designed to ease the pressure on labs rather than free up the workforce – as the isolation period begins when asymptomatic individuals are positive on a lateral flow, not when they get a PCR.

Hawkish ministers have hailed Mr Johnson’s resolve in refusing to bow to calls for more restrictions before Christmas.

One Cabinet minister told MailOnline the public would give him credit for ‘bravery’. ‘I think the PM took the right decision. It was the brave decision. He was right about Freedom Day and now this.’

Pointing to a poll suggesting the Tories recovering ground over the past fortnight, the minister said: ‘The public like people to take brave decisions. I think they are giving him credit for Christmas.’

But there is increasing pressure for action to ease pressure on workforces. Craig Beaumont of the Federation of Small Businesses said: ‘Five-day isolation would help tackle some of the staff absences that we are seeing now really climb.’


Furious tourism bosses today blasted Rishi Sunak for ‘leaving them in the cold’ after the industry was excluded from his new £1billion Covid support package.  

The Chancellor has announced grants of up to £6,000 per premises for hospitality and leisure firms being crippled by a wave of cancellations following the emergence of the Omicron strain. 

The taxpayer will also cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences for companies with fewer than 250 employees. 

However, there was nothing of note for tourism firms, despite surging cancellations for overseas trips amid tougher testing and self-isolation rules for people arriving in the UK.

Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: ‘It is devastating to see that once again business travel and its supply chain have been left out of Government financial support.

‘It’s imperative that the arts, hospitality and leisure are given help through the latest wave of the pandemic. However, a vital part of the UK economy and the driver behind global Britain is being left in the cold.

‘We urgently need the Treasury to correct this oversight and support our industry into 2022. This is the only way for there to be a safe return to international travel when conditions allow.’

Luke Petherbridge, director of public affairs for travel trade organisation Abta, claimed Mr Sunak’s announcement ‘ignores the direct impact of Government policy decisions on businesses reliant on international travel’.

He said: ‘Travel agents, tour operators and travel management companies will rightly be asking why they haven’t been given the same treatment as other businesses that are suffering at this time.

‘Average annual revenue across the travel industry is down by nearly 80% on pre-crisis levels even before Omicron emerged, and the reintroduction of enhanced testing – both pre and post-arrival – have added significant costs and notably dampened consumer demand.

‘As the sector approaches what should be the peak sales period for booking holidays for summer 2022, businesses are instead facing another round of heart-breaking and demoralising cancellations, with no indication that the Government is listening to the challenges they are facing.’

Mr Petherbridge urged the Government to lift ‘unnecessary travel restrictions’ immediately, provide grants to the travel sector which are similar to those announced for hospitality, and consider the need for the furlough scheme to be reintroduced.

Rain Newton-Smith, CBI chief economist, said the international travel and tourism sector ‘remains disappointingly out of scope despite the heavy toll it has taken for many months’.

The move came as another 90,629 Covid cases were recorded in 24 hours, along with 172 deaths. A further 15,363 infections with the Omicron variant have bee confirmed, bringing the total to 60,508. 

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street today) has stepped back from imposing punitive lockdown curbs that would have ruined Christmas

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street today) has stepped back from imposing punitive lockdown curbs that would have ruined Christmas

The rush hour at King's Cross in London was quieter than normal this morning amid Covid concerns and with Christmas just a few days away

The rush hour at King’s Cross in London was quieter than normal this morning amid Covid concerns and with Christmas just a few days away 

Other sectors were equally scathing, with arts bosses describing the level of support as ‘inadequate’ and ‘bordering on the insulting’.

The Treasury announced that cultural organisations in England can access a further £30 million funding during the winter via the culture recovery fund.

The £1.57 billion CRF was launched in July 2020 with the objective of protecting Britain’s cultural, arts and heritage institutions.

Groups criticised the extent of the support and the decision to distribute it through the fund, saying a system of emergency support packages is instead needed.

The announcement follows a string of cancelled theatre performances, with The Lion King and Life Of Pi among the West End shows having to dim their lights due to Covid-enforced staff shortages, as well as a fall in attendance at grassroots live music venues.

Mark Davyd, founder and chief executive of Music Venue Trust, said: ‘We will need to see further details on the £30 million package announced to support the cultural sector. Our initial response is that this funding seems detached from the reality.

‘If correct, it would be inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem – we note that grassroots music venues are not even mentioned in the statement despite DCMS having all the evidence they need that losses in this sector alone will run to £22 million by end of January.’

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, described the newly-announced support as ‘far too little’.

He said: ‘Businesses are failing, people are losing their livelihoods and the industry is crippled. Mixed messaging, coupled with additional restrictions, have had a catastrophic impact on our sector over the last two weeks.

‘At this critical point, we need strong leadership and a clear pathway from Government with a long-term strategy for new Covid variants.

‘The open/close strategy is crucifying businesses. Every pound of help is much needed. But this package is far too little and borders on the insulting.’

Theatres Trust director Jon Morgan welcomed the announcement of mandatory grants.

He said: ‘The additional mandatory grants of up to £6,000 are also welcome and will be particularly helpful to smaller theatres. We hope that both funds are distributed as quickly as possible to help protect theatres.

‘Theatres across the country are already struggling with shows being cancelled due to infections and falling ticket sales, as audiences follow Government advice to be cautious, so this support is very much needed.’

Paul W Fleming, general secretary of Equity, the trade union for performing arts workers, said: ‘The lack of financial support for the creative workforce in today’s announcement from the Chancellor is a shocking example of Government negligence when Equity members are staring into a winter of cancelled shows, bookings and performances.

‘Many producers, workplaces and artists are ineligible for Cultural Recovery Funding. Instead of another inadequate, vague, headline deal for bosses and buildings, we need an urgent plan to protect all those working in theatre and entertainment industries during this critical Christmas season.’

He said these should include a new furlough scheme for performers and stage management, increasing statutory sick pay and extending it to self-employed taxpayers, and targeted support for creative team members, entertainers and variety artists through new grants.

Head of theatre workers union Bectu, Philippa Childs, said the support would arrive too slowly if it was distributed through the CRF.

She said: ‘The Culture Recovery Fund is not equipped to deal with the rapid response necessary to alleviate the current Covid crisis for theatres and live events. It is focused on buildings not people, is too cumbersome and too slow.

‘We need an emergency support package for our members who are facing another Christmas of work cancellations and uncertainty.’

Greg Parmley, chief executive of Live, which represents music industry venues and the entertainment sector including companies, artists and backstage workers, said: ‘We welcome the news that the Government has started to deliver much-needed financial support, but with the live music sector teetering on the brink, the package falls short of the urgent cash injection businesses need to keep them afloat.

‘The amount of money pales in comparison to the mounting losses faced by the sector and the process will add layers of complexity at a time when businesses are already struggling with skeleton staff rotas and huge losses.’

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said on Twitter: ‘This is vital support that won’t just help protect our cherished theatres, museums & heritage sites, but the tens of thousands of people who work in them.

‘It’s important that we give as much support as we can to creative institutions and ensure that they are still there, standing strong to keep people employed, informed and entertained.’

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Julian Knight welcomed further support but called for clarity on the likelihood of an imminent lockdown.

He said: ‘More crucial still will be giving clarity for what the likely outlook for Covid restrictions is in the short and medium term.

‘You cannot simply start and stop a production or tour with a few days notice. They need to be planned and are dependent on a reasonable assessment of whether enough people can see it to be financially viable.

‘While additional money is welcome we must also give the entertainment sector the best possible chance of being up and running on its own. Without more clarity this will not be possible.’

Empty tables and chairs at a restaurant in London's West End last night as the hospitality sector faces another crisis

Empty tables and chairs at a restaurant in London’s West End last night as the hospitality sector faces another crisis

A near-deserted Tube train this morning - with London Mayor Sadiq Khan having already cancelled the New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square

A near-deserted Tube train this morning – with London Mayor Sadiq Khan having already cancelled the New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square  

Other businesses groups welcomes the package, however, though they warned that more might be needed if ministers tighten restrictions. 

‘We are pleased that the Chancellor heard our call for additional grant funding for hospitality and leisure businesses, which will provide some much-needed support in the face of this increasingly difficult trading period,’ said British Chambers of Commerce director general Shevaun Haviland.

‘Clarity and speed will be needed to ensure that these grants are paid out swiftly to help these hard-pressed firms weather the next few weeks.

‘Whilst these measures are a positive starting point, if restrictions persist or are tightened further, then we would need to see a wider support package, equal to the scale of any new measures, put in place.’

The package has promised another £1 billion of financial support for hospitality and leisure companies hit by the recent surge in Covid cases following the emergence of the Omicron strain of the virus.

Businesses will be able to get one-off grants worth up to £6,000 per premises that they run, the Treasury said on Tuesday.

Companies with fewer than 250 staff will also be allowed to claim back up to two weeks worth of statutory sick pay for each employee who gets the virus.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, said the packages would be particularly good for small businesses and will secure jobs in the short term.

‘This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated,’ she said.

She added: ‘There is now a real urgency in getting this funding to businesses so we urge local authorities to prioritise distribution of funds to make sure jobs and businesses are preserved through this difficult period.’

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chairman Mike Cherry said: ‘With the prospect of one million people sick or self-isolating by January, we encouraged the Chancellor to bring back the Covid statutory sick pay rebate – we’re pleased to see our recommendation taken forward today.

‘This move will reduce stress for small employers up and down the country, helping those who are struggling most with depleted cashflow.

‘It’s vital that small firms, once again up against a massively disrupted festive season, can reclaim the costs of supporting staff.’

Meanwhile, independent businesses have said the latest package of support will not be enough to help them through a difficult Christmas period, with lower footfall seen in cafes and shops as consumers try to avoid the new Omicron variant. 

Rachel Hutchinson, owner of The Rock Fairy Limited, a rock and roll-themed zero-waste shop and sustainable cafe based in Afflecks, Manchester, said her business was excluded from government support during previous lockdowns and that as ‘we started getting new variants, trade has steadily plummeted since September really’.

‘This month has been insane, it should be the busiest time of year. Today we opened at 10.30am and we’ve taken £6,’ she said.

She added that shoppers needed to feel safe, and many regular customers were avoiding the shop because they wanted to safeguard festive family plans but that her trade had fallen by 60%.

‘The six grand, it doesn’t cover what we’ve lost, so it’s certainly not going to cover what we stand to lose as well if they lock us down,’ she said.

Ms Hutchinson added that it would ‘just about’ help the company through Christmas.

Andrew Murray, director of independent brewers the Twisted Brewing Company in Westbury, Wiltshire, said: ‘I’m obviously disappointed and concerned about getting through the next two months because ordinarily we see trade has a downturn in January/February post-Christmas, and normally our Christmas trade would take us through and see us through that.

‘Unfortunately, we’ve seen our trade decimated this week and last week and we’re certainly not expecting anything next week, so the last few weeks of Christmas trade have been decimated by what the Government have said or not said really.’

He added that trade was 60% lower than expected takings in a normal December and that the firm was trying to ‘pivot to supplying people direct’ as they had during the lockdowns but that the changes in trade caused by Omicron had taken the business ‘unawares’ as they had not prepared to change their entire business model over ‘without any financial support from the Government’.

He said that the Treasury offer of support would be ‘very welcome’ but added that he doubted if this would include suppliers to the hospitality industry and that they would therefore face ‘a long cold winter ahead of us’ where suppliers would need to ‘throw ourselves at the mercy of our local authorities’.

Meletius Michael, founder of Meletius Coffee in Islington, London, said: ‘We’re moving our premises to just a roasters and not a coffee shop, because I just knew that there were going to be more restrictions and no help, so as soon as Plan B came we had already lost 50% of our turnover per day so it’s just not viable.’

He added that he would be closing the coffee shop on Friday and that footfall at his premises was down, although the surrounding area was busy.

‘All of a sudden people become more hesitant and they’re scared to come inside a shop’, he said, adding that the weekend before Plan B was announced the shop’s takings had been £600 from coffee and £300 the week afterwards.

While the overall business was doing well, he added that ‘partially the reason for the shop closing is because of restrictions’.

He said that the Treasury grant ‘doesn’t help us at all – £6,000 is nothing’.

‘In any business, 50% of your outgoings is your salary on payroll, so £6,000 is literally covering a very small dent – it needed to be furlough scheme at a minimum or a much higher grant’.

He added that at a minimum, £25,000 would be needed to cover Christmas and that the amount announced was ‘hilarious to us’.

It came as Boris Johnson tonight declared that Christmas can definitely go ahead ‘cautiously’ – but warned that there are no guarantees about the New Year. 

Amid rising anger that millions of people are being left in limbo, the PM completely ruled out any further curbs being introduced before December 25.

But he gave notice that the government is still monitoring the ‘finely balanced’ situation with Omicron ‘very carefully’ and is ‘ready to take action’ afterwards if necessary.   

The short-term clarity came after Nicola Sturgeon dramatically cancelled large-scale New Year celebrations in Scotland, reintroducing limits on households mixing, table service in hospitality and crowds at major events.

Meanwhile, another 90,629 Covid cases were recorded in 24 hours across the UK, along with 172 deaths. A further 15,363 infections with the Omicron variant have been confirmed, bringing the total to 60,508 – although the pace of spread looks potentially slower than initially feared.  

There has been heavy criticism of the claim from SAGE modellers that deaths could reach 6,000 a day in the worst scenario, and although daily cases have been rising sharply and topped 100,000 on December 15 they are still short of the levels feared. 

Leading statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter has also pointed out that around half of new Covid admissions in Omicron hotspot London only tested positive after arriving at hospital, possibly for a different ailment – although he stressed they would still add to pressure on the health service.

Official figures out today reveal that Covid was mentioned on 764 death certificates registered in England and Wales in the week to December 10 – 4 per cent down from the previous week and the lowest level since October. 

Mr Sunak finally unveiled the support for businesses after bars and restaurants were left deserted following increasingly grim warnings from Chris Whitty and other experts. The spending will make another dent in the public finances, after new figures revealed today that borrowing has risen above forecasts with the economy stalling. 

A survey by Ipsos MORI revealed a majority of Britons are now taking matters into their own hands to reduce their chances of catching coronavirus, with 58 per cent saying they have avoided public transport or plan to do so, and 57 per cent saying the same about going to pubs and restaurants, and social gatherings with friends and family. 

Local authorities will administer the £683million of hospitality and leisure grants, with 200,000 businesses set to benefit – although the criteria do not seem clear. Another £102million will go into discretionary funds, again controlled by town halls, and the emergency fund for cultural organisations will get a £30million boost. 

The devolved administrations will receive around £150million of funding through the Barnett formula as part of the support announced, with around £80million for the Scottish Government, £50million for the Welsh Government and £25million for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Mr Sunak gave a strong hint that the government will go further if more restrictions are needed, saying they cannot ‘rule anything out’.

‘People will be able to look at our track record over the last year or two and supporting people and businesses, especially in the hospitality industry throughout this crisis,’ he told journalists.

‘I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face. People can have confidence in that.

‘Where we are now we’ve responded, I think, generously today, the grants that we’ve outlined up to £6,000 are comparable to the grants that we provided for hospitality businesses when they were completely closed earlier this year. So, there’s a benchmark for you.

‘Also, it’s important to remember we have support already in place that lasts all the way to next spring.

‘So, for example, a reduced rate of VAT for the hospitality and tourism sectors, and this year they are benefiting from a 75 per cent discount on their business rates bill. Those types of things last all the way to next March to support the industry.’   

On another intense day of coronavirus drama:

  • Thousands more people could be released from isolation in time for Christmas as ministers prepare to cut the period from 10 days to seven days; 
  • Sir Jeremy Farrar, a former member of SAGE, has backed the position of waiting for another day to see updated evidence on Omicron;  
  • Mr Johnson’s personal rating have slumped again, with YouGov finding a net minus 48 think he is performing well – down from minus 35 last month. Just 22 per cent approve of the government with 60 per cent disapproving; 
  • The NHS has given a million Covid jabs in a single day for the first time, but still appears to be off the pace to hit the New Year target on boosters;
  • London’s New Year’s Eve celebration event in Trafalgar Square has been axed with Sadiq Khan urging people to watch TV instead.
The latest YouGov research has found just 22 per cent approve of the government, with 60 per cent disapproving

The latest YouGov research has found just 22 per cent approve of the government, with 60 per cent disapproving

A queue for a vaccination centre at Hampden Park in Glasgow today, with Nicola Sturgeon due to announce whether more restrictions will be brought in for Scotland after Christmas

A queue for a vaccination centre at Hampden Park in Glasgow today, with Nicola Sturgeon due to announce whether more restrictions will be brought in for Scotland after Christmas  

Sturgeon cancels New Year in Scotland over Omicron fears 

Nicola Sturgeon today cancelled large scale New Year celebrations in Scotland as she unveiled additional coronavirus restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Scottish First Minister said the advice for Christmas Day remains unchanged, with people allowed to meet with family but urged to be cautious.

But from December 26 for three weeks there will be attendance limits placed on live public events which will torpedo Hogmanay events.

The limits will not apply to private life events like weddings, but Ms Sturgeon said for indoor standing events the limit will be 100 people, for indoor seated events it will be 200 and for outdoor events 500 seated or standing.

This will mean that from Boxing Day football and other sporting matches in Scotland will effectively be spectator-free.

Ms Sturgeon also said that from December 27 the Scottish Government is advising people to return to limiting their social contacts ‘as much as you possibly can’ as she urged to nation to ‘please stay at home’.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UKHospitality industry body, said: ‘This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated.

‘It will help to secure jobs and business viability in the short term, particularly among small businesses in the sector, and we particularly welcome the boost to funds for the supply chain and event and business catering companies so badly affected by the reintroduction of work from home guidelines.

‘There is now a real urgency in getting this funding to businesses so we urge local authorities to prioritise distribution of funds to make sure jobs and businesses are preserved through this difficult period.’

The president of British Chambers of Commerce, Conservative peer Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, called for clarity on who will be eligible.

She told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: ‘We asked very much for grant support, so we are delighted that grant support has been given, but we don’t know yet the definition of eligible businesses and companies.’

She added: ‘I think it is a good start. Our concern is around the fact that we need business confidence and we have got uncertainty.

‘We need to know that we can stay open and continue to trade and consumers will return.’

But shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves complained that the government had been ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ to offering support.

‘The PM continues to be too distracted by revolt from Tory backbenchers to act in the public interest. Businesses and workers are crying out for clarity on what restrictions are down the road as many continue to be hit hard,’ she said. 

Senior Tories have hailed the decision to avoid immediate restrictions, while some scientists accused Mr Johnson of ‘caving in’ to sceptics in the Cabinet after ‘losing authority’ following a series of scandals.

In a statement released on video this evening, Mr Johnson said he wanted to give clarity for people on what to do at on December 25.

‘What this means is that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans but the situation remains finely balanced and I would urge everyone to exercise caution, to keep protecting yourselves and your loved ones, especially the vulnerable,’ he said.

‘And remember to keep following the guidance – wear a mask indoors when required to do so, keep fresh air circulating, and take a test before you visit elderly or vulnerable relatives.’ 

Covid cases have remained flat since last Friday when they hit a peak of more than 93,000. 

The slowing statistics may be behind Mr Johnson’s decision not to bring any tougher restrictions before Christmas.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that Mr Johnson had made the right decision as he slammed the modelling.

He said: ‘It’s not all doom and gloom, it does look like Omicron has stopped growing. The numbers over the last few days seem to have plateaued and maybe even be falling.

‘It’s a bit too soon to be absolutely sure about that, but if it is the case Boris Johnson will breathe a sigh of relief. We have to be a little bit careful because it’s only a few days.

‘And because we’re getting closer to Christmas there is nervousness that people may not come forward for testing because they don’t want to test positive and miss out on meeting relatives.

‘Omicron overtook the other variants around December 14 so most of any changes from there on would be down to Omicron. So if it was still doubling every two days that would have shown and we should have been at 200,000 cases yesterday and certainly more than 200,000 cases today.

UK records more than 100,000 daily cases for first time  

The UK recorded more than 100,000 Covid cases in a single day for the first time ever last week, new data shows after the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

A total of 102,297 people tested positive for the virus last Wednesday, according to backdated Government figures — marking the first time they have risen above triple digits officially since the start of the pandemic.

The figure looks at positive cases by ‘specimen date’, the day someone took the test, and is different from daily reported cases announced by Government every day, which looks at when someone received their result. 

It can take up to five days for the number of positive tests on any single day to be fully counted so more days where Covid cases have breached 100,000 may emerge in the coming days.    

But case numbers are still well below the projections of gloomy Government modelling which said there were up to 400,000 infections a day last week and that this could rise to 1million by the peak this winter.

Doubts about No10 scientific projections are believed to be the reason Boris Johnson has pumped the brakes on a Christmas lockdown, with ministers waiting for more concrete data on the variant. 

Last Friday, the Department of Health reported 93,045 new Covid cases. Cases have barely moved in four days and a record 1.5million Britons are being tested for the virus every day currently, which suggests the issue is not a lack of tests.  

‘But the fact it has been around 91,000 raises the point that it might actually have peaked. But it will probably take until at least Wednesday to get an idea of a day that is not affected by the weekend. But I am more optimistic than I was a few days ago.

There were 1.49million tests conducted today which is down from 1.56 million last Wednesday, but Professor Hunter said the ‘relatively small drop’ in testing would not hide a virus truly doubling every two days.

Latest hospital figures show there were 847 Covid admissions on December 17, up only 7 per cent on the previous week. There were a further 172 Covid deaths today, up 14 per cent. 

In epicentre London the wave also appears to be slowing after 20,491 cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, down slightly on yesterday’s tally of 22,750. It also marked the sixth day in a row cases have been above 20,000.

Hospitalisations in the capital are rising with another 245 registered today, up 56 per cent in a week, but MailOnline analysis showed up to a quarter of these are not primarily Covid.  

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg is understood to have urged the government during the Cabinet meeting yesterday to ‘trust people’ to respond to the alarm about the rapid spread of the new strain, rather than bringing back draconian laws.

Mr Johnson is said to have cautioned that explanation will not wash if the NHS is at serious risk of being underwhelmed, but eventually went with the majority view among his team. Critics said he had ‘caved in’, although No10 denied that he was overruled, stressing he did not make any firm proposal. 

Mr Johnson was boosted by Sir Jeremy Farrar, a former member of SAGE, backing the position of waiting for another day to see updated figures on hospitalisations. He told the Today programme that ‘each of us can do things today that will make the chance of further restrictions lighter’.

Commons sources said that there was ‘chaos’ coming out of Downing Street about whether they should expect a recall over the Christmas period. 

After government borrowing for November came in higher than predicted this morning, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay highlighted the ‘economic consequences’ of more restrictions. 

Mr Barclay told BBC Breakfast: ‘The Prime Minister has given a commitment that where there are additional regulations bought forward that Parliament would be recalled in order that Members of Parliament can scrutinise and debate those issues, but we are not at that stage.

‘We are looking closely at the data and we need to recognise there are economic consequences to further restrictions.’

With plans for the two-week ‘circuit breaker’ still said to be on the table, Mr Johnson last night warned he had to ‘reserve the possibility’ of further restrictions to control the spread of Omicron. 

However he admitted the data was not clear enough to justify action now.

The PM has promised to consult parliament on any new legal curbs and it is highly unlikely that MPs could be recalled in time to act before the Christmas break. 

A row erupted yesterday over modelling that had appeared to raise the threat of Christmas being ‘cancelled’ for a second year.

In forecasts leaked over the weekend, the SAGE committee cited modelling that without rapid action daily deaths could hit 6,000 in the worst case – and hospital admissions 10,000.

But with huge uncertainty over the severity of Omicron, ministers, MPs and experts rejected the ‘implausible’ predictions.

Tory former leader Iain Duncan Smith referred to SAGE modeller Graham Medley as ‘Graham Meddler’ during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, although it was not clear if it was a slip of the tongue. 

Mr Duncan Smith said the government should only make a decision based on a ‘wider range of information on the effect of lockdown’.  

‘We need to understand the effect of lockdown is dramatic across so many areas of people’s lives, which equates to the same as people going into hospital,’ he said.

Sir Jeremy, head of the Wellcome Trust, said people could take personal responsibility.

‘Omicron is spreading unbelievably fast. It is a phenomenal variant transmission,’ he said.

‘There is great uncertainty about what is it going to lead to in terms of pressure on the health system, people going to hospital, particularly people dying, but also what impact is it going to have on the broader society, staff absences, the ability to have functioning other services, so there is great uncertainty.

‘My personal view is that I think we can wait at the moment until there are more restrictions formally placed.’ 

Could the New Year see a ban on socialising indoors and the Rule of Six outside? 

Speculation is mounting that the government could impose a a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in England after Christmas. 

Ministers and officials have apparently pencilled in December 28 as a possible date to trigger the new curbs. 

The preparations come after SAGE suggested which would effectively re-impose ‘Step 2’ of Boris Johnson’s old lockdown exit roadmap for two weeks.   

It is unclear which parts of ‘Step 2’ could be included but a crackdown on indoor social contact is viewed as the most likely move. 

Below is a breakdown of the measures included in the old ‘Step 2’ which was in force in April this year.  

Ban on indoor socialising: People were not allowed to socialise indoors, except with members of the same household. The rule of six applied outdoors.

Curbs on hospitality: Bars, pubs and restaurants were closed indoors but could serve people outdoors where the rule of six applied.  

Shops: All retail remained open, including hairdressers, beauty and nail salons. 

Domestic travel: People were advised to minimise travel as much as possible. 

Education: Early years settings, schools and colleges were open for all students.     

Mr Barclay said there had been a ‘robust discussion’ at Cabinet about how to respond to the Omicron threat.

 ‘We are looking closely at the data, there is much we still don’t know about the severity of Omicron, how it leads to hospital admissions,’ he said.

‘We are looking particularly at the London data, there is a higher prevalence of Omicron particularly in London.’

Asked if he had been among members of the Cabinet calling for more data, Mr Barclay said: ‘I think it is right that the Cabinet has a full and robust discussion.

‘That is what people would expect. It is right that we look at the balance between protecting lives and livelihoods.’

Covid behind just one in 16 deaths in England and Wales, latest figures show

Covid was behind just one in 16 deaths in England and Wales in the two weeks after Omicron first hit Britain as Covid fatalities hit a two-month low, official figures revealed today.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows just 764 of the nearly 12,000 fatalities recorded in the two nations were linked with the virus in the seven days up to December 10.

The weekly Covid fatalities is the lowest figure recorded in two months, since 713 were registered in the week to October 15.

These deaths — which include any fatality where the virus was mentioned on the certificate — were recorded in the two weeks after the first Omicron infections were identified in the UK.

Covid deaths are the biggest lagging indicator of trends in infection rates, because it takes three to four weeks for an infected person to die from the virus.

How deadly the surge in Omicron cases turns out to be remains to be seen, with uncertainties about how severe it is or how well vaccines protect against serious outcomes.

Those key unknowns combined with rising cases have put festive plans into doubt, despite the Prime Minister so far holding off imposing extra Covid curbs before Christmas.

 

However, Mr Barclay told LBC he had downsized the number of family members at his own Christmas celebrations this year, with only his in-laws attending.

He disclosed that Mr Sunak will give more details of support for businesses later. 

‘The Chancellor was talking to industry leaders about this very issue last night. We will say more about this later today,’ he said.

‘We recognise obviously we are keen to keep businesses open and businesses should continue to plan for the bookings they have.

‘We absolutely recognise that through Plan B and the behaviour change there has been an impact on those bookings.’ 

Several ministers – including Mr Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – made clear they were unwilling to back further restrictions until there was better information on the impact of Omicron.

Mr Sunak is understood to have resisted measures that could cost the economy billions ‘off the back of data that is patchy’. The most vocal supporters of a strong response are believed to have been Communities Secretary Michael Gove and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

Afterwards Mr Johnson insisted the Government was monitoring the data ‘hour by hour’ and that the arguments for taking action were ‘very, very finely balanced’.

But he stressed there are still ‘uncertainties’ around the severity of the new strain, as well as the rate of hospital admissions associated with it and its impact on vaccines.

He added: ‘Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS. We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.’

Ministers were briefed at the virtual Cabinet meeting by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.

Ms Truss apparently demanded ministers were given ‘really thorough data’ before approving curbs, and insisted there must be ‘incontrovertible evidence that we need more restrictions’.

Other ministers voicing similar concerns included Mr Rees-Mogg, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack.

Ms Sturgeon today cancelled large scale New Year celebrations in Scotland as she unveiled additional coronavirus restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Scottish First Minister said the advice for Christmas Day remains unchanged, with people allowed to meet with family but urged to be cautious.

But from December 26 for three weeks there will be attendance limits placed on live public events which will torpedo Hogmanay events.

The limits will not apply to private life events like weddings, but Ms Sturgeon said for indoor standing events the limit will be 100 people, for indoor seated events it will be 200 and for outdoor events 500 seated or standing.

This will mean that from Boxing Day football and other sporting matches in Scotland will effectively be spectator-free.

Ms Sturgeon also said that from December 27 the Scottish Government is advising people to return to limiting their social contacts ‘as much as you possibly can’ as she urged to nation to ‘please stay at home’.

Ms Sturgeon appeared to fire a shot at the Prime Minister as she said ‘we know from experience that if we wait until the data tells us conclusively that we have a problem… it will already be too late to act to avoid that problem’. 

A very quiet road in London's West End last night as people stay at home with just days to go until Christmas

A very quiet road in London’s West End last night as people stay at home with just days to go until Christmas

Government borrowing came in above expectations at £17.4billion – only £4.9billion below last year and the second highest on record

Graph shows London's daily Covid cases by date reported. It reveals they initially shot up when Omicron first emerged, but may now be stabalising despite predictions that infections are doubling every two to three days

Graph shows London’s daily Covid cases by date reported. It reveals they initially shot up when Omicron first emerged, but may now be stabalising despite predictions that infections are doubling every two to three days

The above graph shows Covid cases recorded in the UK by specimen date, which is the date that a test was carried out. It reveals 100,000 people who took swabs last Wednesday tested positive for the virus

The above graph shows Covid cases recorded in the UK by specimen date, which is the date that a test was carried out. It reveals 100,000 people who took swabs last Wednesday tested positive for the virus

Covid isolation could be cut to seven days 

Ministers are set to announce a major shake-up of Covid rules by slashing the number of self-isolation days to seven, in a bid to stop staff shortages grinding the country to a halt this Christmas.

Government experts are reportedly set to agree new advice which will see the self-isolation period cut by three days – bring it down from 10 days to seven.

However those self-isolating will need to have negative lateral flow tests on day six and seven in order to be eligible for early release.

It comes after epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson earlier this week backed the change, saying it would ‘not reduce the effectiveness of the measures that much’ if coupled with testing.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has also reportedly been pushing hard for the reduction. An announcement is expected ‘imminently’.

A Cabinet source said: ‘There is more data coming on Wednesday, so that should make hopefully the picture a bit clearer and decisions easier to make.’  

Tory former chief whip Mark Harper said that ‘not telling the public what’s going on is unacceptable’ as he said ‘we can do so much better than this’. 

SAGE social behaviour expert Stephen Reicher lashed out at Mr Johnson today, saying he had ‘caved in’ to lockdown-sceptic ministers and Tory MPs.

‘The arguments are very very finely balanced says ‘do nothing’ Johnson. On the one hand you have a scientific consensus that current measures are inadequate and that action is needed now. You have the NHS crying out in alarm. You have businesses crying out for support,’ Prof Reicher said. 

‘On the other hand you have the right of the Tory Party which threatens rebellion. And the Prime Minister, who has lost political authority over his own party, just as he has lost moral authority over the country, caves in to the latter That’s not balanced It’s completely unhinged.’ 

Mr Johnson was under pressure from his SAGE experts to roll out extra curbs after they delivered dire warnings about what will happen if the PM fails to act urgently. 

But other experts today slammed as ‘fictitious’ projections of 6,000 daily Covid deaths and 10,000 hospitalisations this winter in a worst-case scenario. 

Coronavirus cases have also been around the 90,000 mark for four days now, after experts predicted they would double every two days. 

It has also emerged that ministers are considering slashing isolation for those with Covid from 10 days to seven days due to fears Omicron will cripple the economy.   

According to Government modelling, up to 2million people could be catching the ultra-transmissible variant per day during the peak this winter.

There are growing fears it could push the country into a de facto lockdown with so many isolating with mild illness, even if hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

Sources say the change in policy is ‘being looked at’ and Health Secretary Sajid Javid is thought to be eager to shorten the isolation timeframe as hospitals and businesses struggle due to absent workers.

The lack of a final decision by Mr Johnson on extra curbs means it now seems unlikely that further restrictions will be rolled out before Christmas but there are mounting fears of a crackdown immediately after December 25. 

The PM has promised that MPs will get a vote on any additional rules but Parliament is now in recess and recalling the House of Commons, holding a debate and then voting would take an estimated 48 hours. 

Announcing curbs any later than today would therefore run the risk of people being told to follow new rules after they have already travelled to see family for Christmas. 

The Times reported that Mr Johnson and the Cabinet delayed a decision because they were not yet convinced the latest Omicron data justified announcing new restrictions. 

Can we afford another lockdown? Borrowing rises as economy stalls 

The grim state of the public finances was laid bare today as the Covid surge and Omicron variant hammers the economy.

Government borrowing came in above expectations at £17.4billion – only £4.9billion below last year and the second highest on record.

Meanwhile, the country’s debt pile had reached £2.32trillion by the end of the month – equivalent to 96.1 per cent of GDP, the worst ratio since 1963.

The bleak picture comes amid mounting fears that the resurgence of the virus has derailed the recovery. 

However, the newspaper said the Government could opt to impose a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown in England after Christmas, potentially starting on December 28. 

It was reported on Saturday that Whitehall officials had drawn up regulations which would effectively re-impose ‘Step 2’ of the PM’s lockdown exit roadmap for two weeks.  

That would mean a ban on indoor socialising and a return of the rule of six for outdoor gatherings. Bars, pubs and restaurants would be banned from serving people indoors. 

The delay in Mr Johnson’s decision on extra curbs prompted a split within the Cabinet, with Sajid Javid warning ministers that no decision was a decision in itself. The Health Secretary asked experts to ‘kick the tyres’ of government modelling but they were unable to reassure him that the variant is less severe, reports the Times.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted that the public should be trusted to make their own decisions as to how best to protect themselves and the family, rather than imposing more restrictions. He also criticised SAGE modelling while saying that there was not enough evidence to suggests new Covid measures were necessary. 

The Prime Minister convened the meeting of his top team as he faced a growing Cabinet revolt over potential further Covid rules. 

The PM had been presented with three options to tackle the variant amid surging case numbers, with the lowest level of intervention consisting of advice to limit household mixing indoors, according to The Telegraph.

The second level would see mandatory restrictions on household mixing, the return of social distancing and an 8pm curfew for pubs and restaurants while the third and toughest level would see a return to something close to a full lockdown. 

Mr Johnson is now considering his next move, knowing that any decision to tighten Covid rules will spark a furious Tory backlash. 

Downing Street at lunchtime refused to be drawn on the proposals which are reportedly under consideration, with the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman telling reporters: ‘At this point we are still monitoring the data and keeping a very close eye on it… we would update if any decisions are taken.’

Boris Johnson has been presented with three options to slow the spread of the Omicron variant with the PM reportedly clearing his diary today for crunch meetings with scientists and advisers

Boris Johnson has been presented with three options to slow the spread of the Omicron variant with the PM reportedly clearing his diary today for crunch meetings with scientists and advisers

Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, today refused to rule out more curbs being introduced before Christmas

Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, today refused to rule out more curbs being introduced before Christmas

Experts slam SAGE’s ‘fictitious’ doomsday scenario

Modelling by SAGE was today slammed as ‘fictitious’ after projecting 6,000 daily Covid deaths and 10,000 hospitalisations this winter in a worst-case scenario. 

In advice to ministers published this weekend, the Government’s scientific advisers said there could be astronomical casualty numbers without more ‘stringent measures’. 

SAGE’s modelling team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found there could be 10,400 hospitalisations in England per day at the peak of the outbreak in February in a worst-case scenario.

They assumed that Omicron will continue to grow exponentially even under Plan B curbs, two jabs offer just 50 per cent protection against severe disease from the mutant strain and boosters just 80 per cent. 

The 6,000 deaths a day figure was calculated by Warwick University scientists and made similarly pessimistic assumptions about vaccine effectiveness, as well as that current curbs reduce transmission by just 20 per cent . 

If both of these predictions were to come true, it would mean that 60 per cent of people who get admitted for Covid in the coming months will die.

By comparison, at the peak last January there were on average 4,000 admissions a day and 1,300 deaths giving a hospital-fatality rate of 32.5 per cent. Warwick said it factored in ‘extreme pressure’ put on the NHS by Omicron. 

The worst-case scenarios were presented despite 48.8 per cent of over-12s being boosted, 81 per cent being double-jabbed, and reports from South Africa that the mutant strain is milder.  

Crucially, the modellers did not look at any scenario in which Omicron causes milder disease than Delta or if people start to change their behaviour in the coming weeks in response to the variant.  

SAGE’s chief modeller Professor Graham Medley from LSHTM revealed this weekend that the committee does not consider optimistic scenarios because ‘that doesn’t get decisions made’. 

An ex-Government scientist who wished to remain anonymous today told MailOnline that the numbers are ‘fictitious’, adding: ‘Models have to simplify the world to predict the future, but clearly that’s an absurd futureThey said the doomsday scenarios were comparable to ‘science fiction’, adding: ‘But we don’t tend to question it because we worship numbers’.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University and a GP, said this morning that ‘we are in deep, deep trouble of potentially talking ourselves into annual lockdowns’ as he argued the question should be ‘when are we going to treat people like adults?’. 

But Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of government advisory body the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), said ‘we need to reduce our contacts’.

Asked about Christmas, he said: ‘The safest thing is not to meet up before Christmas. If you want a good Christmas dinner, I would say be very careful about meeting up before Christmas.’ 

At least 10 Cabinet ministers are said to be resisting further curbs because they have concerns about the accuracy of expert modelling on the spread of Omicron. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is one of the ministers to have expressed concerns about the projected numbers, according to The Times, after SAGE warned there could be 3,000 patients a day in need of hospital treatment without urgent action. 

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet on a call on Saturday that curbs should be rolled out as soon as possible but one third of senior ministers are said to be against the move.  

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab this morning refused to rule out additional restrictions before Christmas Day as he said he could not make ‘hard, fast guarantees’. He said the Government is aiming to take ‘informed decisions and of course we want to take them earlier rather than later’. 

Tory MPs last night said any attempt to toughen rules before Christmas will provoke letters seeking to oust Mr Johnson as party leader.  

The warnings came just 24 hours after Lord Frost, up to now a close ally of Mr Johnson, dramatically quit as Brexit Minister slating ‘coercive’ Covid curbs and high taxes.  

Lord Frost walked out with a parting shot at the ‘direction of travel’ and saying he had hoped the end of lockdown would be ‘irreversible’. His departure was described as a ‘watershed moment’ in what had been an extremely damaging week for Mr Johnson.

Today’s coronavirus statistics showed there had been a further 91,743 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK as of 9am this morning. The Government said a further 44 people had died. 

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said there had been 8,044 additional confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, bringing the total confirmed cases of the variant in the UK to 45,145.   

Families are desperate to spend Christmas together after last year’s Covid lockdown rules meant millions were forced to be apart or severely scale back their celebrations.

It is understood Mr Johnson is resisting calls for restrictions ahead of December 25, but there are mounting fears they will be imposed after that, spoiling New Year plans for millions. 

Sajid Javid yesterday repeatedly declined to rule out imposing tough restrictions before Christmas as he warned there are ‘no guarantees’ Christmas Day will go ahead without a lockdown. 

The Health Secretary acknowledged that data about the Omicron variant remained incomplete – but suggested it might be necessary to make decisions before a full picture is available.  

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet during a call on Saturday that hospital admissions in England could reach 3,000 a day unless further curbs are introduced

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet during a call on Saturday that hospital admissions in England could reach 3,000 a day unless further curbs are introduced

In other coronavirus developments:  

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to 'hold firm' against more restrictions and not make any 'knee-jerk restrictions'

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said there was 'no evidence' for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas

Mark Harper (left), chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to ‘hold firm’ against more restrictions and not make any ‘knee-jerk restrictions’. Meanwhile former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith (right) said there was ‘no evidence’ for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas

 

People who do a weekly shop are more than twice as likely to catch Covid than those who get their groceries delivered online, an official study suggests.

SAGE’s Virus Watch Study examined the day-to-day activities of over 10,000 people in England and Wales between September and November 2021.

Going to the shops once a week seemingly carried the biggest likelihood of catching the virus, with those doing so being 2.2 times more likely to test positive.

This was followed by playing sport outside, with those who did 1.36 times as likely to test positive, according to the study.

But researchers acknowledged this could be due in part to social activities attached to such events, rather than the playing sport itself.  

The risk of testing positive after going in a pub a few times a week – about 1.3 times higher than not – was the same as frequently taking public transport. 

However, the time period analysed means it will not include any data from the recent Omicron wave of cases which only picked up from mid-December.   

This graph shows the likelihood of testing positive for Covid after certain events from Sage's Virus Watch Study, the findings were adjusted for people's vaccination status, age and region

This graph shows the likelihood of testing positive for Covid after certain events from Sage’s Virus Watch Study, the findings were adjusted for people’s vaccination status, age and region

Shopping was found to be the riskiest activity for people to later test positive for Covid, with those who went to the shops at least once a week just over twice as likely to catch the virus than those who didn't

Shopping was found to be the riskiest activity for people to later test positive for Covid, with those who went to the shops at least once a week just over twice as likely to catch the virus than those who didn’t

Heading to the pub and having a pint indoors at least once a week was associated with an increased risk of testing positive for Covid but people could massively reduce their risk by opting to have their pint outdoors instead

Heading to the pub and having a pint indoors at least once a week was associated with an increased risk of testing positive for Covid but people could massively reduce their risk by opting to have their pint outdoors instead 

Could Omicron be even LESS deadly than seasonal flu?

Omicron could be even less deadly than flu, scientists believe in a boost to hopes that the worst of the pandemic is over.

Some experts have always maintained that the coronavirus would eventually morph into a seasonal cold-like virus as the world develops immunity through vaccines and natural infection. But the emergence of the highly-mutated Omicron variant appears to have sped the process up.

MailOnline analysis shows Covid killed one in 33 people who tested positive at the peak of the devastating second wave last January, compared to just one in 670 now. But experts believe the figure could be even lower because of Omicron. 

The case fatality rate — the proportion of confirmed infections that end in death — for seasonal influenza is 0.1, the equivalent of one in 1,000. 

Meanwhile, researchers at Washington University modelling the next stage of the pandemic expect Omicron to kill up to 99 per cent fewer people than Delta, in another hint it could be less deadly than flu. 

No accurate infection-fatality rate (IFR), which is always just a fraction of the CFR because it reflects deaths among everyone who catches the virus, has yet been published for Delta. 

But UK Government advisers estimated the overall figure stood at around 0.25 per cent before Omicron burst onto the scene, down from highs of around 1.5 per cent before the advent of life-saving vaccines. 

Other higher risk activities including eating indoors in a restaurant or café, having to physically go to work, and going to the gym.

The analysis- which excluded infections thought to have originated in the same household – also found some activities carried very little risk of testing positive for Covid afterwards.

They found no increased risk for those who attend the theatre, the cinema, or a concert or sports event or going to a hairdresser, barber, nail salon or beauty parlor.

Similarly, they found no good evidence of increased risk from having a pint in a pub garden or eating outdoors at a café.

Additionally, while frequent use of public transport carried an average increased risk of catching Covid, 1.2 times as likely than those who didn’t, different types of public transport had different risks.

Bus users were 1.3 times as likely to test positive for Covid, followed by taxi users, 1.19 times as likely, and finally over-ground train or tram users, 1.18 times as likely.

However, no increase in risk was seemingly observed in underground rail users.  

The Virus Watch data has not yet been peer-reviewed and the authors of the latest analysis added that their findings might be impacted by a low number of young people in the study group. 

Activities were based on monthly surveys which asked about the weekly frequency of certain activities, such as visiting the pub or cinema.

The SAGE paper comes as Britain’s daily Covid  cases fell for the second day in a row with early signs NHS admissions are peaking in England — as Sajid Javid reiterated that Omicron is up to 90 per cent less likely to cause severe illness.

There were 178,250 new positive Covid tests across the UK over the past 24 hours, Government dashboard data shows, down 6 per cent on the figure last week.  

The two-day dip in new infections puts an end to nearly a month of solid growth following the emergence of the ultra-infectious new variant.

Another 229 Covid fatalities were also registered across the country today, marking a 13 per cent rise compared to last Friday. Bu there are around seven times fewer daily Covid deaths now than during the second wave last January.

Meanwhile, latest hospital data showed another 2,434 patients were admitted with the virus on January 3, up by more than a quarter on the week before.

But it is not clear how many of the new admissions were primarily for Covid, and analysis of NHS stats suggests as many as 40 per cent are testing positive while in hospital for a different illness.

And even though Covid hospitalisations are rising in the UK as a whole, appear to be flatlining in England according to the most recent data. Daily admissions there were down 10 per cent in a week on January 5, the second day in a row they had fallen.

England’s admissions appear to be following the same trajectory as London’s, which is weeks ahead of the rest of the country and has seen hospital rates fall for the past five days.

The promising statistics come shortly after the Health Secretary reminded the nation that boosters cut the risk of severe Omicron illness by up to 90 per cent as he issued a plea to the remaining 10million eligible Britons who have not taken up the offer of a third dose.


‘If you look at the tree, you hit the tree,’ remarked our guide, sagely.

We were on electric mountain bikes in the dramatic Cairngorms. In one of the bike’s boost modes, it was easy to overcook the motor-assisted pedalling and thereby thump into inanimate objects too insolently permanent to get out of our way.

That was the reason why our cycling sage – Chris Gibbs, head guide of mountain bike holidays company H+I Adventures – had advised us to wear knee and elbow guards as well as noggin protection.

Jude climbing in the Cairngorms. The heather was home to millions of wee biting beasties leading Carlton to joke that this was Glen Midgie

Jude climbing in the Cairngorms. The heather was home to millions of wee biting beasties leading Carlton to joke that this was Glen Midgie

Jude riding in Glen Feshie on an EP8-equipped Merida e-mountain bike

Jude riding in Glen Feshie on an EP8-equipped Merida e-mountain bike

WHAT IS AN EP8 UNIT? 

EP8 is Shimano’s electric bike drive unit, a 2.6kg motor in the bottom bracket area, behind the front chainwheel. It’s ‘pedal assist’ so you have to keep pedalling for the battery-powered boost. In other words, e-bikes aren’t motorbikes where you use a throttle and don’t have to pedal. Like almost all electric bikes in the UK and EU, an EP8-equipped e-bike gives assistance up to 25kph or about 15mph. 

Speed isn’t everything, though, and what the EP8 provides is incredible torque (85 newton meters of torque in fact) so you can tackle steep hills with ease. The motor is incorporated into the frame of the bike as is a battery, although that’s also removable for ease of charging.

There are third-party motors that can turn standard bikes into e-bikes, but the EP8 system is something bike companies design their bikes around rather than something that can be attached to your own bike. 

EP8 is what’s known as a ‘mid-motor’ system in that the drive unit is sort of in the middle of the bike frame. Another e-bike system is for the motor to be in the hub of the rear wheel. Most European e-bikes now use mid-motors because they’re more efficient and it’s better to have weight in the centre of the bike rather than at the back wheel. 

Metaphorically wrapped in helicopter-parent-style bubble wrap, we felt like kids again. Well, I did anyway, which is why I had the impish urge to jump ahead on a water splash to soak my wife with my spinning back wheel.

‘Oh, thank you!’ Jude yelled sarcastically.

‘I’m sopping now!’

‘Ha, ha, you just got tidal waved,’ laughed Chris.

‘You’re gonna have to be faster next time to get him back,’ he suggested.

‘He wanted me to squeal; he did it on purpose,’ replied Jude, knowing that I wanted lively sound effects for the podcast I was recording.

‘It’s not a Scottish bike ride until you’ve got wet feet anyway,’ pointed out Chris, also sporting a radio mic.

‘By the time you’ve been through a few mountain streams, smashed your way through the pine trees for an exfoliation, it’s practically a spa treatment.’

We were in the majestic Glen Feshie on the third and final day of a private tour organised by bicycle components brand Shimano, which wanted me to trial its latest electric mountain bike assist system, EP8 (see boxout).

Electronics? In damp Scotland?

Despite the rain, jumping through water splashes, and Jude dunking her bike in a stream while I photographed every millimetre of her fall with burst mode on my iPhone, the bike batteries survived.

And even though we did some long valley rides – I was particularly fond of my joke about Glen Midgie – in the highest-draining power modes, we never even got close to fully depleting the battery levels.

I’m an experienced mountain biker; Jude’s a relative newbie. Relative in that she last mountain biked – and even then, gingerly – something like 20 years ago. She hasn’t done much MTBing since and certainly hasn’t been on one of these new-fangled, full-suspension eMTBs.

Because I’m a know-it-all old hand, I’m guilty of relying on the riding styles from my youth, so it was an education for me to watch Chris showing Jude how best to handle trail obstacles such as roots or fallen branches, and demonstrate the best bike stance for descending.

‘This is the time to make use of that dropper post,’ advised Chris, pointing to the electronic gadget that, with the press of a lever and a bum slam, compresses the saddle and its seatpost, so you sit lower on the bike and are therefore less likely to be jettisoned forwards.

‘Get the saddle out the way and just start descending nice and big and open,’ said Chris, exaggerating his stance over the bike while moving ahead.

‘Like a big gorilla!’ he laughed. 

Instructor Chris Gibbs riding across the Fhearnagen stream in Glen Feshie

Instructor Chris Gibbs riding across the Fhearnagen stream in Glen Feshie

Oops! Jude takes a tumble into the Fhearnagen stream. Carlton remarks that the batteries on her bike survived the dunking

Oops! Jude takes a tumble into the Fhearnagen stream. Carlton remarks that the batteries on her bike survived the dunking

Chris explains riding technique to Jude as they descend to the H+I Adventures HQ close to the Beauly Firth near Inverness

'Ride like a big gorilla!' said Chris

LEFT: Chris explains riding technique to Jude as they descend to the H+I Adventures HQ close to the Beauly Firth near Inverness. RIGHT: ‘Ride like a big gorilla!’ said Chris

Jude crossing the Coire Follais stream near Aviemore. The EP8 on the bikes the group rode are 'pedal assist' units that provide 'incredible torque'

Jude crossing the Coire Follais stream near Aviemore. The EP8 on the bikes the group rode are ‘pedal assist’ units that provide ‘incredible torque’

Jude and Chris riding into Glen Feshie. Chris leads tours on e-bikes as well as on non-electric bikes. He likes both, Carlton says

Jude and Chris riding into Glen Feshie. Chris leads tours on e-bikes as well as on non-electric bikes. He likes both, Carlton says

The handlebar-mounted screen on the EP8-equipped Merida e-mountain bike shows speed and is how the rider toggles between modes - eco, trail and Boost

The handlebar-mounted screen on the EP8-equipped Merida e-mountain bike shows speed and is how the rider toggles between modes – eco, trail and Boost

‘You’ve got loads of room for the bike to move underneath you, and you’ve got 160mm of suspension, so you don’t need to turn around every rock,’ he yelled, hitting a big rock and rolling over it with ease.

‘If you can keep loose in your arms and legs, the bike’s gonna soak it up for you,’ he promised.

‘So just nice and easy; down this line; here on the left.’

Prang! Jude smacked into a tree.

‘Sorry,’ she exclaimed, unhurt.

‘No, don’t apologise,’ Chris soothed.

‘The trick is looking far ahead. Look where you want to be because if you look at the tree, you’re going to hit the tree. If you look past the tree, you’re going to sail right past it.’

A drone photograph of Bunchrew House hotel beside the Beauly Firth near Inverness, with the Kessock Bridge in the far distance

A drone photograph of Bunchrew House hotel beside the Beauly Firth near Inverness, with the Kessock Bridge in the far distance

'Bunchrew House is an ideal base for mountain biking in the hills above Inverness or for travelling into the Cairngorms,' writes Carlton

‘Bunchrew House is an ideal base for mountain biking in the hills above Inverness or for travelling into the Cairngorms,’ writes Carlton

'Bunchrew House was built in the 1600s by John Forbes. Fans of the historical TV series Outlander will be tickled that the house has both Fraser and Mackenzie clan connections,' says Carlton

‘Bunchrew House was built in the 1600s by John Forbes. Fans of the historical TV series Outlander will be tickled that the house has both Fraser and Mackenzie clan connections,’ says Carlton 

A few hours later, Jude’s technique – and, if truth be told, mine also – had improved immensely, and she was able to shimmy at speed down the sort of root-strewn steeps that would have thrown her on our first day.

And she could ride up them, too, aided by the motor, but still having to pedal.

Chris leads tours on e-bikes as well as on non-electric bikes. He likes both.

‘The moment that [electric mountain biking] clicked for me,’ remembered Chris, ‘was when I started down-powering. There would be climbs that I would physically never make on a regular bike; like, super technical or super steep, but a down-powered e-bike gave me just enough [power] that I was still working physically really hard, but suddenly, I was able to make things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.’

The view from the bar of Bunchrew House's ancient cedar tree, planted in the 1700s

The view from the bar of Bunchrew House’s ancient cedar tree, planted in the 1700s

'The walls of the hotel - which has the feel of a country home - are adorned with original oil portraits of the families from both the Fraser-Mackenzie lines and the Forbes line,' reveals Carlton

‘The walls of the hotel – which has the feel of a country home – are adorned with original oil portraits of the families from both the Fraser-Mackenzie lines and the Forbes line,’ reveals Carlton

A sign explaining the history of the Bunchrew House's cedar tree

A sign explaining the history of the Bunchrew House’s cedar tree

Jude agreed. Better technique was now getting her down the hills, but with an eMTB, she was now also able to tackle steep, rocky climbs that she likely wouldn’t have been able to clear on a pedal-only mountain bike.

‘You still get a mountain bike feel,’ she agreed.

You don’t feel as though you’re riding a motorbike, then, I asked?

‘No!’ she replied, almost offended.

Our ride over, and with the rain starting to fall, we shuttled to our luxurious lodging, the historic Bunchrew House beside the Beauly Firth, just a few miles west of Inverness.

We’d already had our Highlands spa treatment – mud, mostly – so, after showering, we dressed for dinner, a silver-service affair in the old hotel’s oak-panelled dining room with large bay windows looking out to sea.

We dined on fine food as we talked with Chris about our riding that day, the sun dipping behind the Black Isle hills in the distance. Luxury.

  • To listen to Carlton’s podcast on the trip, click here. 

TRAVEL FACTS… AND MORE ON STUNNING BUNCHREW HOUSE

Jude drinks in the view from the Bunchrew House dining room

Jude drinks in the view from the Bunchrew House dining room

Bunchrew House is an ideal base for mountain biking in the hills above Inverness or for travelling into the Cairngorms. The hotel is also popular with those riding – or driving – the North Coast 500. Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the NC500 is a spectacular route that winds around the coast roads of the Northern Highlands.

Bunchrew is a Scottish mansion house with links to the Jacobite Risings. It was built in the 1600s by John Forbes. Fans of the historical TV series Outlander will be tickled that the house has both Fraser and Mackenzie clan connections. The walls of the hotel – which has the feel of a country home – are adorned with original oil portraits of the families from both the Fraser-Mackenzie lines and the Forbes line.

The HQ for H+I Adventures is a stone’s throw from Bunchrew House. Group trips start and end at this new-build HQ. The H+I used to stand for Highlands and Islands but reverted to initials only when the company began offering overseas MTB trips. H+I has three group trips in Scotland: the Highland Odyssey, which goes through the Cairngorms and then out to the West Coast and up into Torridon in the northwest.

There’s also a week-long trip in the Cairngorms, an east to west coast-to-coast traverse. A private three-day tour with an H+I guide and daily transport to the Cairngorms costs £1,550 per person, with a minimum of two people staying at Bunchrew House for two nights with breakfast and dinner included.