Coronavirus: Restrictions coming back in England as Omicron poses threat

The Plan B button has been pushed.
The Plan B button has been pushed. Photo credit: Getty Images.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed tougher COVID-19 restrictions in England on Wednesday, ordering people to work from home, wear masks in public places and use vaccine passes in a bid to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Undermined by accusations that his staff partied at Downing Street during a Christmas lockdown last year, Johnson said Omicron was spreading rapidly and he had no choice but to move to "Plan B" to buy time and get more booster shots into arms. While still a long way from the full lockdowns that hammered the economy earlier in the pandemic, the new measures could cut visitors to restaurants, cafes and shops in city centres in the run up to Christmas and deal a fresh blow to Britain's finances.

"While the picture may get better, and I sincerely hope that it will, we know that the remorseless logic of exponential growth could lead to a big rise in hospitalizations and therefore, sadly, in deaths," Johnson told a news conference.

Sterling had fallen in the run up to the announcement and investors pared back their bets on a Bank of England interest rate hike next week.

Johnson, who lifted most COVID restrictions in England in July, had vowed to navigate the winter without resorting to a fourth COVID-19 lockdown, but had kept a so-called Plan B in reserve.

Part of those measures, such as reintroducing masks on public transport and in shops, had already been brought in, but on Wednesday Johnson said people should also now work from home if they can.

Face masks will be required in public venues and a COVID pass will be mandatory to access nightclubs and places with large crowds.

Britain has recorded more than 145,000 COVID-19 deaths during the pandemic.

A fast start to the vaccine programme has since helped to contain the impact, and in recent months cases have held steady at around 43,000 daily infections and 135 deaths after Johnson lifted most restrictions in England.

But the emergency of the Omicron variant has put governments on edge around the world. Britain has discovered 568 confirmed cases of Omicron so far.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own COVID restrictions and had already set tougher rules.