UK Covid live: Cobra meeting called over Omicron spread; chief whip defends PM over ‘gatherings’

New restrictions on visiting people in care homes and hospitals may have to be introduced to counter the impact of Omicron, the Welsh government has said.

Speaking at a press conference in Cardiff, the first minister, Mark Drakeford, said:

We will be issuing new guidance for visiting in care homes and hospitals. We want to do all we can to support visiting where it is safe to do so but, if we see a new wave of cases, some strengthened measures to protect patients and residents may be needed.

Drakeford also called for students preparing to leave college and university for Christmas to test before travel.

No new restrictions are being introduced but the Welsh government is to start reviewing measures weekly from now rather than every three weeks as it has been doing.

Drakeford said Wales was a week behind what was happening in England and Scotland but he expected cases of Omicron to rise “quickly and steeply”.

He said he was planning to speak to the UK government today to make it clear that if hospitality venues have to close because of the variant, the UK Treasury would have to step in to help.

Mark Drakeford at his press conference in Cardiff today.
Mark Drakeford at his press conference in Cardiff today. Photograph: Polly Thomas/Getty Images

While emphasising that it is crucial to following existing guidelines on regular testing, face masks and ventilation, Nicola Sturgeon backed the advice put out yesterday by Public Health Scotland saying that people should think about deferring work Christmas parties and avoid crowded places. (See 9.59am.) She said:

There is a serious risk with Omicron, and we are already seeing the reality of this with parties and events with lots of people. We should all think about unnecessary contact in crowded places.

Changing self-isolation rules, Sturgeon said any household contact of a positive case should self-isolate for 10 days even if they receive a negative PCR test, while non-household contacts can leave isolation once they receive a negative PCR result.

Sturgeon said the guidance was focusing on work events “because we knew they are resulting in the rapid spread of infection”. She pointed out that there were 60 train cancellations on ScotRail today due to Covid absences, while 40 accident and emergency staff were isolating because of an Omicron cluster.

The bigger the event, the more those risks are very real. My advice would be to consider deferring work Christmas events.

The clinical director Jason Leitch pointed out the attack rate of Omicron was that if 100 people were in the room and there was a single case, at least 50 people would get it.

Nicola Sturgeon has just started her televised update on Omicron in Scotland with some sobering words and numbers: she says the country is facing “a potential tsunami of infections”, explaining that the new variant is showing “the fastest exponential growth we have seen in this pandemic so far”.

There were 5,018 positive cases in Scotland yesterday, a sharp rise on the average of 2,800 daily cases that health officials have been reporting recently. There was a total of 110 Omicron cases in Scotland yesterday, which has risen from just nine when it was first detected here on 30 November.

The Scottish government has just published an evidence paper on Omicron, which suggests Omicron is “rising exponentially” – officials believe the doubling time is closer to two than three days, and that Omicron is going to very quickly overtake Delta as the dominant strain, maybe as early as next week.

The advice to cancel or postpone Christmas parties, which was released from Public Health Scotland late yesterday afternoon, has been met with confusion and anger overnight.

Scotland’s national public health body said it was “strongly urging” people to cancel Christmas parties after a number of Omicron outbreaks linked to festive get-togethers. This advice has no legal standing, of course, and does not constitute government guidance.

There was immediate confusion because the press release came out just after the national clinical director, Jason Leitch, told Radio Clyde that people could still have parties if they were “careful”.

Hospitality groups said they had no prior notification of the announcement and it was met with shock from the industry. UK Hospitality Scotland said the announcement had come “like a bolt out of the blue” with cancelled bookings flooding in overnight.

There were also demands for clarity over what a “party” constituted.

Nicola Sturgeon will give an unscheduled televised update on Omicron in Scotland at 12.15pm.

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