Boris Johnson puts off decision on fresh coronavirus curbs

LONDON — Boris Johnson said he will “reserve” the possibility of tougher action to tackle the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Following a two-and-a-half hour meeting of his Cabinet on Monday, the U.K. leader said ministers had “agreed to keep data under constant review” due to continued “uncertainty” over the trajectory of the latest COVID outbreak.

The prime minister told reporters: “We will not exclude the possibility of going further if we have to do things to protect the public.”

The latest U.K. data shows 221,006 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past seven days, up 60 percent week-on-week. The government is currently advising people to work from home, while masks are mandated in indoor public places and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result is required for entry to certain mass events.

Johnson — who faces intense pressure from his own MPs and some ministers not to further tighten England’s restrictions — said the situation was “extremely difficult” and that hospitalizations are rising steeply in London. But he said the arguments for and against closing certain businesses were “finely balanced.”

In the meantime, he urged the British public to “exercise caution.”

MPs from across the political spectrum have called for greater clarity from Johnson’s government over likely future restrictions and the shape of any government support package for affected businesses. Bars and restaurants face plummeting demand through canceled bookings, and are also grappling with staff sickness.

Conservative former Cabinet minister Mark Harper tweeted: “Not telling the public what’s going on is unacceptable. These are big decisions affecting everyone’s lives.”

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves of the opposition Labour Party said, “The silence from Johnson and [Chancellor Rishi] Sunak is causing stress and anxiety for many businesses and workers.”

Johnson said financial help for hard-hit hospitality businesses already exists, including business rates relief, VAT relief and funding from local councils. But he added: “Like all these things, we will keep the economic side of this under review as well.”

Two Whitehall officials predicted restrictions are more likely after Christmas — but Monday’s Cabinet meeting yielded no certainty on that either.

Alex Wickham contributed reporting.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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