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Omicron milder in UK — New Year’s fireworks — Liz vs. No. 10 – POLITICO

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By ALEX WICKHAM

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Good Wednesday morning.

SCOOP: The Omicron coronavirus variant is causing a milder disease than the Delta strain in most Britons, U.K. government scientists are set to conclude. The U.K. Health Security Agency is due to publish its early real-world data on the severity of the disease before Christmas, and Playbook is told the experts are likely to offer a mixed outlook, with some positives and some negatives.

Top line: The best news in the early data is that Britons who fall sick with Omicron are less likely to become severely ill than those who caught Delta. More people are likely to have a mild illness with less serious symptoms — probably in part due to Britain’s large number of vaccinated and previously infected people, and possibly because Omicron may be intrinsically milder. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has previously cautioned against too much optimism based on the initial optimistic signs from South Africa in the past few weeks. However, the UKHSA’s view after studying cases in Britain is that Omicron is indeed usually less severe than Delta.

Important caveat: The less good news is that while Omicron seems milder overall, the UKHSA has found it is not necessarily mild enough to avoid large numbers of hospitalizations. The experts have found evidence that for those who do become severely ill, there is still a high chance of hospitalization and death. The UKHSA has also confirmed that transmissibility of Omicron is very high, meaning that even though it is milder, infections could rocket to the point large numbers still end up in hospital — essentially negating the reduction in severity. NHS staff shortages due to widespread infections also have to be taken into account. Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that there was still “uncertainty” on exactly how severe Omicron is, and how this impacts the hospitalization rate.

Boosters make a difference: There is other good news, though. Playbook is told the UKHSA is also expected to conclude that while two doses of a vaccine are not enough to offer strong protection, a booster dose does significantly reduce the chance of both symptomatic infection and ending up in hospital. A UKHSA spokesperson told Playbook they would not comment on unpublished data.

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SA finding the same: A new paper has been released by experts in South Africa that offers similar conclusions to what the UKHSA will announce this week. The FT’s John Burn-Murdoch says the South African paper suggests people with Omicron are “markedly less likely to be hospitalized,” although once Omicron patients are in hospital, outcomes are not necessarily any better than with Delta.

Playbook’s hot take: There is something for everyone in the data coming from UKHSA this week, and no doubt different people will interpret it in different ways. Lockdown skeptics will argue the confirmation of the milder disease means ministers should resist further restrictions. One government insider says: “This is why it was right for us to wait for more data.” Others in Whitehall stress that people should not read too much into the conclusion that Omicron is milder, as its higher transmissibility means it could still lead to a large wave of hospitalizations. In other words, once again the data does not exactly pave the way for a clear cut decision for ministers.

DRIVING THE DAY

NEW YEAR’S FIREWORKS: Boris Johnson and his senior ministers will spend the next few days urging Britons to be cautious over Christmas, as they try to determine whether the incoming hour-by-hour Omicron data means they need to impose restrictions next week. The prime minister told the country in a video message last night that they should follow guidance to stay safe when they visit their families this weekend: “Wear a mask indoors when required to do so, keep fresh air circulating, and take a test before you visit elderly or vulnerable relatives.” As for what happens next: “We can’t rule out any further measures after Christmas” — plunging New Year’s celebrations into doubt. The stakes could not be higher both on the health side and the politics, and with data on hospitalizations still unclear things have rarely been more uncertain during the pandemic either.

Eyes on the epicenter: The i’s Jane Merrick has a strong assessment of the situation following Johnson’s decision not to impose new restrictions before Christmas. She reports that scientific advisers are watching the number of COVID hospitalizations in London, which has been the Omicron epicenter, in order to make a judgment on any measures next week. The latest figure for new London admissions, from Sunday, is 245 per day. Merrick says the experts fear that should that number rise above 400 per day by the end of the week, it would be a “good guide” that the Omicron wave would translate into huge numbers of hospitalizations across the country that could overwhelm the NHS in January.

Could we get away with it? “If London admissions remain below 400, it could mean no legally enforced restrictions are needed after Christmas, although there could be tougher guidance announced by the Prime Minister on 27 December,” Merrick reports.

Are new cases slowing? There is some speculation among scientists that Omicron infections are plateauing. In another must-read Times piece by Rhys Blakely and Chris Smyth, the World Health Organization’s prof. Paul Hunter backed Johnson’s “wait and see” approach, noting that reported cases were forecast to be at 200,000 per day by Monday but were at 91,743. “Where have all those cases gone? It’s possible that something is changing with the epidemiology of Omicron — it’s possible that it’s not growing at the rate that it was,” Hunter speculates. Merrick also suggests that cases in London could be calming down. “Analysis by the UK Health Security Agency showed that, following a rapid rise in the past fortnight, the increase in cases and suspected cases of Omicron is slowing in the capital.

Does anyone know why? In a word, no. Blakely and Smyth run through the various theories: It could be because people are changing their behavior to be more careful, it could be because boosters are taking effect, it could be that fewer people are getting tested, or it could be something about Omicron itself that scientists do not yet understand. The Telegraph’s Science Editor Sarah Knapton argues Omicron cases may have peaked, pointing to data suggesting that case rates are remaining low in areas with high booster uptake. Knapton does however suggest that reported case numbers are likely to jump today as more weekend data is added in.

When will ministers get the next clue? The crucial data on this week’s daily London hospitalizations may not come until next week, the Times reports. Which at least means we don’t all have to spend Christmas Day on Twitter.

This is all sounding a bit optimistic … but do Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance agree? Whitty has said he thinks it’s possible Omicron cases could spike incredibly quickly and then come down again quickly too, so here’s hoping. On a call with MPs last night however, Playbook is told the duo warned about the looming prospect of large numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. A Tory MP tells the Times’ Chris Smyth: “I didn’t get the impression they [Whitty and Vallance] were convinced we were making a mistake [in not imposing restrictions], even if they probably thought on balance we probably are.”

Won’t see you next Tuesday: Indeed, the Sun’s Harry Cole, Jack Elsom and Jonathan Reilly reckon New Year’s “looks doomed.” They report: “Pubs could be forced to serve outside and indoor mixing capped as soon as next Tuesday … The PM could yet announce plans for restrictions before this weekend — but time has run out to get them voted on and introduced before early next week.”

Politicians vs. scientists: The SAGE advisory body of experts argued last week that immediate measures were needed to adequately deal with Omicron. It is clear this morning that there is no political appetite across Westminster for restrictions pre-Christmas. In a fascinating interview with Times Radio’s Ayesha Hazarika to be aired in full on Friday (and to be trailed this morning at 7 a.m.), Labour leader Keir Starmer was asked why he isn’t calling for a circuit-breaker, as he did in autumn 2020.

It’s worth reading Starmer’s answer in full: “Because if we look at the new variants, the numbers are a cause for concern. The hospitalizations are different than they were last autumn when we call for the circuit break. Sorry, the autumn before when we called for the circuit break. We’ve asked ourselves a quite difficult question, which is: ‘What does a responsible opposition acting in the public interest do at a moment like this?’ And the answer is we act in the public interest, and we act to protect public health and therefore the government needs to get a grip, needs to come up with a plan, we will look at it just as we did last week with Plan B, if we think it’s the right measures then we will then support it. And that’s very important. Now, this is different to the position we were in earlier this year, or even last year, because now it’s clear the government can’t get through public health measures on its own votes. So we only have Plan B because the Labour Party acted in the public interest to support the plan that the government put before parliament. So we’ve entered a new phase, if you like of the virus now, where it falls to the opposition to provide the leadership that the prime minister can’t show.”

As far as Playbook can tell … that means Starmer is backing the government’s current COVID policy. He certainly isn’t calling for anything tougher right now. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said Tuesday: “We’re all breathing a sigh of relief that Christmas is going ahead as planned, but the country also deserves some certainty about what comes after Christmas so that families and businesses can plan ahead.”

Looking Stateside: U.S. President Joe Biden last night told Americans they can enjoy Christmas without new restrictions, instead expanding testing and vowing to reinforce hospitals. The comparison between the U.S. and U.K. situation is very interesting. Biden claimed overnight: “This is not March 2020. 200 million people are fully vaccinated. We’re prepared. We know more.” But the U.K. government is suggesting that two jabs — Biden’s definition of “fully vaccinated” — do not offer sufficient protection against Omicron. Only around 30 percent of Americans are boosted. More than 50 percent of Brits have had three jabs.

End of year test: Biden’s big announcement overnight was that he is purchasing 500 million at-home rapid tests that Americans will be able to order for free beginning in January. Free lateral flows have of course been available for Britons for some time. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki infamously mocked the idea of free tests earlier this month. On Tuesday, she indicated she regretted that comment — Mail Online has the story. Johnson and Biden might have ended up in the same place on a restriction-free Christmas, but on testing and boosters the British and American experience has been noticeably different. “Maybe Biden should hire Matt Hancock to sort out his testing,” a Whitehall wag told Playbook last night.

In other booster news: Israel will begin rolling out fourth COVID vaccine doses, PM Naftali Bennett announced last night. They will go first to people older than 60 and health care workers. Israel had one of the fastest vaccine rollouts earlier this year and started a third/booster program over the summer — they say they are now the first nation to offer fourth doses to the wider population. The FT’s Donato Paolo Mancini and Mehul Srivastava have the story.

What this means for Britain: There will be questions for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization on when it will approve a fourth dose for general use in the U.K. The JCVI was accused of being slow to approve the booster rollout this time round — one of the main reasons for the rush to get the country boosted once Omicron struck.

HOGMANO: Major public events in Scotland for New Year’s Eve — which is arguably more important to Scots than Christmas — are to be canceled under new restrictions announced by Nicola Sturgeon Tuesday. Sturgeon’s deputy John Swinney even told LBC’s Eddie Mair last night he’d recommend no “first footing,” the traditional practice of being the first person to visit someone’s home in the new year. Other changes announced by the Scottish government to come into force from Boxing Day included a cap of no more than 500 people at outdoor events, which has infuriated football fans preparing for the Old Firm derby on January 2 … An even smaller limit of 200 for indoor events such as concerts … A return to table service for pubs and most restaurants … and enforced one-meter distancing in all indoor hospitality venues, which could pose a problem for clubbers. Sky’s Sophie Morris has more.

MERRY CHRISTMARK: It’s also a big day in Wales today, where FM Mark Drakeford will announce plans for new post-Christmas COVID curbs. BBC Wales reports that a return to table service in pubs and limits on indoor mixing could be on the cards, though it isn’t clear yet if these measures would be guidance or enforced legally. Drakeford has a press conference at 12.15 p.m., followed by a statement to a recalled Senedd afterward.

MEANWHILE, IN EUROPE: A somber Olaf Scholz announced a series of new restrictions on social contacts for Germany in a presser last night, with an Omicron takeover of Europe due in a matter of days or weeks according to some infectious disease experts. POLITICO’s Laurenz Gehrke and Helen Collis have the latest. New legal restrictions were also announced in Sweden last night, while similar crisis meetings are taking place in Belgium today and in Italy on Thursday.

YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 90,629 positive cases. In the last week there have been 615,707 positive cases, ⬆️ 238,106 … 172 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 808 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 7 on the previous week. As of the latest data 7,801 COVID patients are in hospital.

BOOSTER STATS: A total 29,876,223 people or 52 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a booster/third dose, ⬆️ 897,979.

TODAY IN WESTMINSTER

PARLIAMENT: In recess.

SWEET SCHEME MY L.A. CX: Chancellor Rishi Sunak has splashed out on a billion-pound support package to businesses hit by Omicron, including one-off grants of £6,000 per premises. The initial biz reaction to Playbook on Tuesday was that it’s a decent offering. The Times’ George Grylls hears similar, reporting restaurants and pubs “cautiously welcomed” the package. Alternatively, the FT’s Jim Pickard and Alice Hancock report hospitality businesses are warning it falls short of what they need to survive.

What Labour is saying: Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary Pat McFadden called it a “holding package,” though said the support was “welcome to see.” He added: “We will be going through the details of this announcement to see which business and workers are included and excluded,” which suggests again that Labour doesn’t specifically oppose anything about the government’s policy.

No. 10 vs. Liz: Cracking story from the Times’ Chris Smyth and Matt Dathan, who quote allies of Boris Johnson calling his leadership rivals “pathetic” over their much-briefed opposition to further COVID restrictions. “It’s amazing how many people seem to have spoken up who didn’t actually say anything,” one senior Downing Street source told the paper. A government source added: “I understand Rishi and Grant [Shapps’]’s positioning — they represent sectors at risk and which would require bailouts etc, ditto Kwasi [Kwarteng, the business secretary],” one government source said. “Liz Truss — less so. What industries is she trying to protect? It smells like she’s trying to heavily position herself as a Conservative libertarian … It reeks of desperation and it’s all a bit pathetic.” Playbook looks forward to hearing what team “Liz for Leader” makes of that this morning.

Oh dear: The Metropolitan Police referred itself to the police watchdog over its decision not to investigate those Downing Street parties. The Telegraph’s Izzy Lyons has a write-up. The Indy’s Anna Isaac says Cabinet Secretary Simon Case stands accused of misleading officials over his knowledge of the events. “Before he recused himself from the investigation, Mr Case assured colleagues that he had no knowledge of any parties or social gatherings of any kind at the Cabinet Office in the run up to Christmas 2020,” Isaac reports.

Sleaze watch: Tory MP Adam Afriyie lobbied parliament about medical cannabis but failed to declare his chairmanship of a distribution company for the drug, the Times’ Emanuele Midolo and George Greenwood report.

AD FRAUD CLAMPDOWN: Ministers are in the “final stages” of agreeing to include paid-for advertisements linked to fraud in their new online content clampdown, POLITICO’s Annabelle Dickson and Matei Rosca hear. Paid ads are currently exempted from the draft of the Online Safety Bill. The move comes after more than a year of pressure from the financial industry, consumer NGOs and financial services regulators to tackle adverts for fraudulent investment after the pandemic saw a sharp rise in crooks targeting people online. One government official said the inclusion of fraudulent paid-for ads is now “all but nailed on.” It’s “the area to expect movement on,” the official said, adding: “It’s tricky, but broadly, it’s happening.” More here for POLITICO Tech and Financial Services Pro subscribers.

TRUSS AND ŠEFČO REVIEW: Liz Truss stuck to her guns on the U.K.’s Northern Ireland protocol red lines in her first call with EU counterpart Maroš Šefčovič Tuesday, telling him not to expect significant changes in the U.K. position just because of a change in ministers. She also stressed Britain is still prepared to trigger Article 16 if it comes to it. A U.K. official quoted in Cristina Gallardo and Shawn Pogatchnik’s write-up for POLITICO said the call was “pretty cordial,” and that Truss agrees with her predecessor David Frost on “all the fundamental principles” of the negotiation. A Truss ally also gushes in the Mail that the foreign secretary “will definitely be no pushover” in talks with the EU.

An alternative reading … Comes from the FT’s George Parker and co., who write that Truss’ words on the unchanged U.K. position are actually a sign she will stick to disputed concessions offered by a U.K. official earlier this month, concerning the role of the Court of Justice of the EU. An ally told the FT Truss intends to “increase the pace of talks” on Northern Ireland.

I WISH IT COULD BE CRIME WEEK, EVERYDAY: Home Secretary Priti Patel will attempt to change in law the way police officers record “non-crime hate incidents” due to freedom of speech concerns, the Times’ Matt Dathan and John Simpson report. Patel will put forward an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill next month after senior judge Victoria Sharp ruled the guidance for dealing with those incidents did nothing to address “the chilling effect” they could have on freedom of expression.

TODAY’S GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCEMENT: The department for education says: “Over half a million children attended free, government-funded Holiday Activities and Food clubs over the summer, including over 495,000 children eligible for free school meals.”

**A message from Facebook: The pandemic has reinforced the importance of collaboration. That’s why Facebook is continuing our work with the government, charities, and researchers in the UK to support the pandemic response and reduce the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. We’ve teamed up with fact-checking organisations, like Full Fact in the UK, to develop multilingual media literacy campaigns that have helped provide millions with tips for spotting false news. We are removing false vaccine claims and displaying warning screens to prevent the spread of incorrect COVID-19 content. We’ve collaborated with governments worldwide to share critical COVID-19 information and provided over £85M in free ad coupons and extensive training on how to leverage our platforms. Governments around the world are using free Facebook and Instagram ads to share authoritative, multilingual COVID-19 information. Learn more about our UK partnerships at about.fb.com/actions/uk.**

MEDIA ROUND

Care Minister Gillian Keegan broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.30 a.m.).

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jon Ashworth broadcast round: GB News (7.30 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).

Also on Kay Burley at Breakfast (Sky News): SPI-M member Mike Tildesley (7.20 a.m.).

Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): SAGE member Paul Moss (7.05 a.m.) … Portland Chairman George Pascoe-Watson (7.10 a.m.).

Also on Times Radio breakfast: Labour Leader Keir Starmer pre-record with Ayesha Hazarika (7 a.m.) … Head of the department of primary care and public health at Imperial College London Azeem Majeed (7.15 a.m.) … Scotland’s National Clinical Director Jason Leitch (8.05 a.m.) … WHO’s Margaret Harris (8.15 a.m.) … CBI President Karan Bilimoria (8.20 a.m.).

Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Tory MP John Redwood (8.05 a.m.) … Migration Watch Chairman Alp Mehmet (8.20 a.m.) … Ipsos MORI Chief Kelly Beaver (9.20 a.m.).

Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Mail’s Andrew Pierce and former Tory/Change MP Anna Soubry.

TODAY’S FRONT PAGES

(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)

Daily Express: Christmas can go ahead, but new curbs loom.

Daily Mail: Double boost for Christmas.

Daily Mirror: Xmas cheer & fear.

Daily Star: The most bizarre must-have this Xmas.

Financial Times: Putin warns of military response to eastern encroachment by NATO.

HuffPost UK: No new COVID rules before Christmas.

i: Christmas is happening. Now U.K. waits on London hospital data.

Metro: Xmas can go ahead.

POLITICO UK: Euronews defends independence after buyout by Hungary-linked firm.

PoliticsHome: Boris Johnson confirms no more COVID restrictions will come in before Christmas.

The Daily Telegraph: Glad tidings for Christmas (but perhaps not New Year).

The Guardian: PM rules out further curbs on Christmas socialising.

The Independent: Cabinet secretary ‘misled officials’ over parties row.

The Times: Take test to see family at Christmas, says Johnson.

LONDON CALLING

WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌥🌥🌥 Sunny in spells and breezy. Highs of 6C.

NOW HIRING: ConservativeHome is hiring an assistant editor. More details here from the Tory blog’s boss Mark Wallace.

BIRTHDAYS: Government Whip Rebecca Harris … Former Treasury Minister Simon Kirby … Former Daily Mirror Editor Mike Molloy … Priti Patel aide Jonathan Isaby.

PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.

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Alex Wickham

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