The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.K. omicron cases explode, while Boris Johnson faces new allegations of lockdown parties

On Dec. 20, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would take further action if needed, as other European nations impose tougher covid restrictions. (Video: Reuters)

LONDON — Scientists are pushing Boris Johnson to take tougher measures to slow the exploding number of new infections driven by the omicron variant, but the British prime minister on Monday said no rules would change for now, as the country prepared to ride out the holiday season.

After a two-hour cabinet meeting, Johnson emerged to tell reporters that his government was watching the steep rise in omicron cases “hour by hour,” but was holding fast, even as Britain’s closest neighbors turned the screw. Ireland has enacted an 8 p.m. pub curfew; France closed nightclubs; Germany barred the unvaccinated from nonessential stores; and the Netherlands went into full lockdown.

Britain recorded more than half a million new infections in the past seven days, up 50 percent from the week before — numbers mostly driven by the omicron variant, which established dominance over the delta variant here last week.

Modelers providing scenarios to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned that without stricter measures, by month’s end new infections could reach 600,000 to 2 million cases a day.

The world is watching Britain’s experience to help answer whether omicron is indeed less severe than delta, or whether that observation in South Africa had to do with immunity levels, the average age of people infected and other factors.

British modelers say hospitalizations could peak here at 3,000 to 10,000 a day in coming weeks, up from the 900 daily admissions now. Deaths could climb to 600 to 6,000 a day, compared with the 100 or so on average now.

At least four dozen countries and 39 U.S. states have reported cases of the omicron variant. National video reporter Hannah Jewell explains what we know. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

In the midst of the holiday season, the government advisers said, large indoor gatherings pose a high risk of seeding “multiple spreading events.”

So there was surprise in some circles that Monday’s cabinet meeting concluded without any new policy announcements.

“We agreed that the situation is extremely difficult and the arguments either way are very, very finely balanced,” Johnson said after the meeting, adding that the government would “reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public.”

Meanwhile, Johnson finds himself at the center of a continuing scandal, having to defend himself and his staff against allegations that they flouted lockdown rules on multiple occasions last year.

The Guardian newspaper on Sunday published a photograph depicting a “wine-and-cheese party” in the garden of Downing Street. Half-empty bottles and glasses can clearly be seen — and so can Johnson and wife Carrie, alongside 17 other attendees.

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The Guardian reported that the outdoor affair took place on May 15, 2020, when gatherings of more than two people were banned in outdoor public places.

A spokesman for Downing Street said that no lockdown rules were broken, that the garden was a private and not a public space, and that this was not a party but a “work meeting” that was deemed “essential.”

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told the BBC: “I know how hard that Number 10 team were working, as the hub, the fulcrum of the crisis response. I think there’s a lot of exhausted people, and they, as people do in work, were having a drink after the formal business had been done.”

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, called Raab’s claim “a stretch” and reminded the country that in May 2020 many people who followed the rules were unable to attend funerals of loved ones.

Capturing the mood on social media, a number of posts described how family members went unvisited in nursing homes or hospitals on that same day last year.

Nick Pettigrew, a former social worker, tweeted, “It’s why the Downing St parties matter. Every funeral missed, every unattended life event, all of it. People quietly allowed heartbreak they’ll never recover from into their lives, without complaint or hope of reward, because of a sense of duty their leaders have never displayed.”

The latest photograph of a controversial gathering follows a string of other recent setbacks and embarrassments for Johnson and his government, including a mock news conference that saw a chief spokeswoman making light of alleged violations of lockdown measures by Downing Street staff during Christmas 2020.

Johnson has denied that any rules were broken, but under pressure from his own Conservative Party, he ordered an internal inquiry by Britain’s top civil servant, Simon Case. Soon after, Case was forced to recuse himself from the probe after reports that a party was held in his own office around the same time.

In London, worry over the omicron variant is visible. The shopping streets had smaller crowds over the weekend, while pub and restaurant owners complained of a “bleak Christmas” amid a flood of party cancellations.

Also during the weekend, London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared an emergency based on projections that so many essential workers will become infected and need to isolate that health and security services could be threatened.

The Natural History Museum in London announced that it was temporarily shutting down because of staff shortages caused by infections and isolation rules. Up north, ScotRail canceled 118 trains on Monday morning because of illness.

Half of London’s top West End theaters canceled performances due to covid cases in cast and crew, including big-ticket plays such as “Hamilton,” “Matilda,” “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Cinderella.”

The palace said Queen Elizabeth II decided to spend a quieter holiday at Windsor Castle, where she has been hunkered down for much of the pandemic, and not travel her Sandringham estate for traditional merriment in northeast England. The palace described it as a personal decision, reflecting a precautionary approach. The 95-year-old queen has been out of the public eye since she was briefly hospitalized in October.

Patricia Marquis, England director for the Royal College of Nursing union, told the BBC on Monday that hospitals were under “immense stress and pressure” because health-care workers were becoming infected and having to stay home.

“So, staff are looking forward now, thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, what is coming?’” Marquis said.

Read more:

Boris Johnson sees record rebellion from his own Conservative Party on covid policies

Boris Johnson’s staff denied there was a 2020 Christmas party — except they joked about it on camera

Boris Johnson reports U.K.’s first known death of patient with omicron variant

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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