England’s Omicron ground-zero of London was significantly quieter than normal this morning as mounting numbers of Britons working from home – and hours after Chris Whitty advised people to avoid social gatherings that are not important to them.
The Chief Medical Officer issued a further warning about the expected surge in infections, saying it was ‘entirely possible’ the number of daily hospital Covid-19 admissions in the latest wave could beat the 4,583 peak in January.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing criticism from Conservative MPs and accusations that he is imposing a lockdown by stealth through his recent dire warnings – but he denied this today, saying: ‘We’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.’
Roads in London were the quietest they have been during the morning rush-hour on any term-time weekday since the summer today as city centres were left deserted and pubs empty by Britons shunning going into the office.
The congestion level reported by TomTom in the capital between 8am and 9am today was 49 per cent – the lowest figure for that period since the end of the summer holidays on September 3, excluding October half-term.
As for other UK cities, the congestion level during the same period today was 51 per cent in Birmingham, 50 per cent in Manchester and Liverpool, 47 per cent in Sheffield, 46 per cent in Leeds and 38 per cent in Newcastle.
All of these figures were significantly below the same time period on Thursday last week – with the biggest drop being in Manchester which was down 27 percentage points, followed by Newcastle falling 12 percentage points.
Today also brought the lowest term-time rush hour congestion level in London on a Thursday morning since July 22, which was three days after ‘Freedom Day’ when the UK’s third national Covid-19 lockdown officially ended.
The percentage represents the proportion of additional time required for journeys compared with free-flowing conditions. A 49 per cent level therefore means a 30-minute trip will take 15 minutes more than with no traffic.
Photographs today showed major stations including Waterloo and London Bridge looking empty, while normally-bustling areas such as Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square were also very quiet. It comes as:
- The Queen cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family party at Windsor Castle next week as a precaution;
- Furious Britons slammed France for banning UK tourists from the country from Saturday over Omicron fears;
- Premier League football fixtures were called off as the Brentford manager said the season should be paused;
- Chris Whitty expects another 18 months of Covid misery until a ‘wider’ vaccine is developed and rolled out.
Professor Whitty – who last night warned ‘all the things that we do know, are bad’ about Omnicron – told MPs today of hospitalisations: ‘I don’t want this to be seen as I’m saying this will happen. I’m just saying there’s a range of possibilities, but certainly the peak of just over 4,500 – 4,583 to be exact – people admitted at the absolute peak…
LONDON — Westminster Bridge looks very quiet during the morning rush hour in London today as Britons stay at home
LIVERPOOL – Liverpool city centre is very quiet this lunchtime with the Town Hall seen in the background
MANCHESTER — People walk past quiet shops and bars in Manchester city centre today amid an increase in cases of Covid-19
NEWCASTLE — Shoppers in the near-empty Christmas market in Newcastle city centre this morning as people stay home
Boris Johnson speaks with a member of medical staff during a visit to a vaccination centre in Ramsgate, Kent, today
A very quiet Oxford Street in London’s West End today despite this time of year normally being the peak shopping season
A quiet Christmas market at Covent Garden in London this morning amid the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases
Few commuters use London Waterloo station this morning as rail passenger numbers drop following the Omicron emergence
London Bridge looks very quiet at 7.35am this morning as Britons continue to work from home after new guidance came in
London Bridge looks far less busy than normal today just before 7am as a handful of people walk through the concourse
An almost-empty escalator leading to the Underground platforms at London Waterloo train station this morning
A quiet Farringdon station during rush hour in Central London this morning as people get off an Underground train
London Bridge looks far less busy than normal today just before 7am as workers decide against going into the office
Commuters wait for a Circle line Underground train at Liverpool Street station in the City of London this morning
An empty bar in London’s Covent Garden called Mr Fogg’s Tavern stores chairs inside while it is closed this morning
The Rail Delivery Group said train journeys across all of Britain have now fallen to July levels, with industry revenue down 23 per cent week-on-week this Monday, meaning it is now at just 43 per cent of pre-pandemic levels
‘It is possible because this is going to be very concentrated that even if it is milder, because it’s concentrated over a short period of time, you could end up with a higher number than that going into hospital on a single day. That is entirely possible. It may be less than that. But I’m just saying that it’s certainly possible.’
Professor Whitty added that there were two caveats to this – one being that people could be staying in hospital for a shorter period because of their protection from prior vaccination, and fewer people may go into intensive care.
‘Omicron is ALREADY in France!’: Furious travel industry slams Macron for banning British holidaymakers – even though variant makes up HIGHER proportion of country’s own cases
Furious Britons have slammed France for banning British tourists from the country starting on Saturday over fears of the Omicron variant.
Emmanuel Macron’s government singled out the UK for the ban on non-essential travel, claiming it is designed to slow the arrival of the super-mutant variant into France.
However the travel industry and experts point out that Omicron is already well established in France – and even makes up a higher proportion of French cases according to the latest available data.
France’s daily Covid cases are already soaring after the arrival of Omicron and are approaching the same level per million as in the UK.
Omicron is also widespread across many European countries including Denmark, which has not been included in the French travel ban.
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: ‘Blanket country measures are a damaging backwards step and never work. ‘Omicron is already in France and other EU countries.
‘Why should the millions boosted be treated the same way as those unvaccinated, and prevented from entry?’
Conservative MP for Dover Natalie Elphicke told MailOnline the French action was causing ‘unnecessary’ misery for travellers.
‘We have seen again France acting in a different way to other European countries. That is going to cause unnecessary disruption this Christmas time,’ she said.
‘We saw France do this last Christmas. It is obviously welcome they seem to be allowing haulage to travel… but clearly this is going to be difficult for passengers trying to return to their homes for Christmas or go abroad at this time of year.’
And a spokesman for ferry operator Brittany Ferries said: ‘These new measures are a hammer blow to our Christmas season. In the context of an Omicron variant that is passing through the French population as it is in the UK, further border controls seem as unnecessary as they are unwelcome.’
Families, who have already paid for tests and packages, will also face a battle to get any money back in time for Christmas.
The PM’s spokesman said the government does not think travel bans are a ‘effective or proportionate’ response to Omicron.
Asked whether Mr Macron should think again, the spokesman said: ‘I think at all stages it’s been down to countries to consider what approach is right for them.’
He also called for limits on socialising last night despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisting festive plans should not be cancelled over Omicron. Professor Whitty issued a clear message on Christmas socialising during a press conference, suggesting people should ‘prioritise’ and not meet friends if they hoped to see their families.
He cautioned against reports from South African doctors that Omicron was a milder strain, said a ‘substantial’ rise in hospitalisations was ‘nailed on’ and warned the NHS could face serious staff shortages as medics become ill.
Meanwhile Mr Johnson denied he was imposing a lockdown by stealth, saying the situation was ‘very different’ from last year. He told reporters: ‘What we have is the additional protection of the vaccines, and the ability to test.
‘So if you want to do something, if you want to go to an event or a party, then the sensible thing to do, if that’s a priority… is to get a test and to make sure that you’re being cautious. But we’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.’
Mr Johnson has urged care when seeing loved ones and friends – including taking a test before meeting anyone vulnerable – but said last night: ‘We are not cancelling events or closing hospitality. We are not cancelling people’s parties or their ability to mix. What we are saying is think carefully before you go about what kind of event it is.’
It comes after a raft of Omicron warnings in TV broadcasts and press conferences this week – and as Mr Johnson continues to face pressure from MPs within his own party following a major rebellion by 100 of them on Tuesday who voted against the mandatory use of Covid health certificates brought in as part of the new ‘Plan B’ measures.
Hospitality firms are now ramping up calls for support from the Government with sales at hard-hit pubs and restaurants plunging by more than a third over the last ten days with £2billion of trade already lost in December.
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls has made a plea for business rates relief and VAT discounts to be extended, warning that the sector has been knocked harder than expected by the new restrictions.
Elsewhere, the CBI also urged the Government to provide support ‘in lockstep with future restrictions’ after the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases led to a surge in booking cancellations and badly damaged consumer confidence.
Clive Watson, chairman of The City Pub group, told the Evening Standard that he was closing all of its venues in the City of London and other office-dominated areas five days early tomorrow, because there is ‘no one around’.
Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton said he had lost £1million worth of bookings this month, while several major West End shows such as The Lion King have cancelled performances because of outbreaks among cast and crew.
Meanwhile the Queen has cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch next week as a precaution, with a source suggesting it could put too many people’s arrangements for the festive season at risk if it went ahead.
And Brentford manager Thomas Frank has called for the next round of Premier League fixtures to be postponed to allow clubs to deal with Covid outbreaks.
Frank saw his side’s clash with Manchester United go under on Tuesday, with Burnley’s match with Watford last night becoming the third Premier League fixture in a week to be called off.
Tonight’s match between Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur was postponed due to Covid cases in both teams, although Liverpool v Newcastle United and Chelsea v Everton are both still expected to take place.
It comes after thousands of darts fans descended upon London’s Alexandra Palace for the World Darts Championship last night.
And young revellers were clearly still happy to be out, with hundreds photographed showing their vaccine passports last night in London as well as in Leeds, Nottingham and Newcastle where they visited nightclubs.
A very quiet Liverpool city centre this lunchtime as Britons continue to work from home following the updated guidance
People walk past quiet shops and bars in Manchester city centre this morning with the Christmas market looking empty
People walk past quiet shops and bars in a shopping arcade in Manchester today as the city centre is much quieter than usual
Quiet or empty bars and restaurants in Manchester’s Spinningfields area this morning amid the surge in Covid-19 cases
A pedestrian walks past the Bank of England in London today with the City of London appearing to be very quiet
A sparsely-populated platform at Westminster station today as people wait for Circle or District line Underground trains
A woman walks past a closed food outlet at Covent Garden in London this morning amid the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases
A man wearing a Christmas jumper walks past a large ‘Merry Christmas’ sign in London’s Leicester Square this morning
A small number of people on London Overground train at Canada Water station this morning on their way to work
Empty tables and chairs at Fumo Restaurant near Trafalgar Square in London this morning amid a surge in cancellations
A very quiet Jubilee line platform at Canada Water station in London during rush hour this morning
A handful of people cross London Bridge before dawn at about 7.30am this morning as Britons shun going into the office
An empty Jubilee line platform at London Waterloo station during rush hour this morning
Today’s congestion in London was by far the lowest 8am to 9am level for this week. The figure was 59 per cent yesterday, 68 per cent on Tuesday and 60 per cent on Monday. On Thursday of last week, it was at 68 per cent.
Boris insists he isn’t overseeing a ‘lockdown by stealth’ as Tories rage at Chris Whitty after his ‘public health socialist state’ warnings against socialising see thousands cancel Christmas plans
Boris Johnson today denied imposing a ‘lockdown by stealth’ as Professor Chris Whitty faced a Tory backlash after telling the nation to restrict socialising in the run up to Christmas.
The Prime Minister said this morning that ‘we have got to be very cautious’ because of the spread of the Omicron variant but he insisted ‘we don’t want to make your choices for you about your social life, we are not closing things’.
Prof Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, sparked Tory fury last night when he used a Downing Street press conference to urge people to limit and prioritise their social contacts in the coming days.
Conservative MP Joy Morrissey tweeted: ‘Perhaps the unelected covid public health spokesperson should defer to what our ELECTED Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister have decided. I know it’s difficult to remember but that’s how democracy works. This is not a public health socialist state.’ Ms Morrissey, who is a Government parliamentary private secretary, the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder, subsequently deleted the tweet as she faced a wave of criticism.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting called her comments ‘outrageous’ and demanded that she apologise while Tory former cabinet minister Julian Smith said ‘personal attacks by any politician’ on members of the civil service are ‘completely unacceptable’.
Prof Whitty said this morning that he did not want to dictate what people can and cannot do, but told MPs: ‘This is about saying to people, look, this is a period to prioritise. And also to be clear, (this) was a message the Prime Minister also said last night.’
Prof Whitty made the comment to the Health and Social Care Select Committee as he also warned pandemic disruption is likely to continue for another 18 months until vaccines and antiviral drugs are capable of doing ‘almost all of the heavy lifting’ when it comes to tackling Covid variants.
In half-term the Thursday figure fell to 31 per cent, while in the summer break it was between 25 and 39 per cent. The last time it was lower than 49 per cent outside of term-time on a Thursday morning was July 22 at 36 per cent.
It comes as Transport for London revealed this week that the number of morning rush-hour commuters using the Underground has plunged by nearly a third in just a week as Britons shun going into the office.
Only 960,000 passengers entered or exited the Tube up to 10am yesterday morning, which was down 29 per cent on the same period on Wednesday last week and less than half (44 per cent) of normal pre-pandemic levels.
Transport for London reported that bus usage across the capital also fell yesterday morning to 1.14million Oyster or contactless card taps, which was down 9 per cent on last week but still at 71 per cent of pre-Covid numbers.
The difference between Tubes and buses is partially because the latter are more regularly used by children going to school as normal and lower-paid Londoners in key worker roles that require them to travel in to their workplace.
On Tuesday this week, there were 1million people using the Tube during the morning rush hour, which was down 26 per cent on Tuesday last week and at 45 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
However, across the entire day on Tuesday this week, there were nearly 2.1million journeys on the Tube, which was at 51 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and only an 18 per cent week-on-week decrease in ridership.
On Tuesday, September 14 this year, TfL saw about 2.13million Tube journeys made, which is the closest recent level across a whole day to the numbers of passengers being seen now.
The biggest reductions on Tuesday were observed at City of London stations where there were nearly 331,600 entries and exits yesterday compared to around 504,800 on the same day last week.
In terms of Underground stations linked specifically to shopping locations, there were around 541,800 entries and exits on Tuesday – compared to around 621,600 entry and exits last week.
On Monday, TfL, which runs the capital’s buses and Tubes, recorded an 18 per cent reduction in Tube journeys up to 10am, while bus usage dropped 6 per cent.
However, across all of Monday, the week-on-week fall was only 12 per cent on Tubes and 2 per cent on buses, mostly because leisure travel has not fallen as much as commuting.
It also emerged yesterday that train journeys across all of Britain have fallen to July levels, with industry revenue down 23 per cent week-on-week this Monday, meaning it is now at just 43 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
This was down from 55 per cent of pre-pandemic levels the previous Monday – and it means this Monday’s figure is the lowest level on a Monday since the end of July, when the country first reopened after the third lockdown.
People sit on a London Underground train this morning after new Covid-19 infections hit record levels yesterday
People wear face masks as they walk across Westminster Bridge in London this morning with the roads very quiet
A man wears a face mask as he walks past an advert in support of the vaccination campaign at Westminster station today
An empty bar in London’s Covent Garden called Mr Fogg’s Tavern stores chairs inside while it is closed this morning
A woman wears a face mask as she walks past Covid posters at Westminster station on the London Underground today
Two people sit apart and eat inside a McDonald’s next to Charring Cross on the Strand in Central London this morning
People walk past a sign in Covent Garden at the London Transport Museum reading ‘Next stop, Christmas’ this morning
A quiet Christmas market in Covent Garden in London today as a rapid rise in Covid cases has led to a surge in cancellations
The Rail Delivery Group also said daily rail journeys in the week to December 9 were at an average of 55 per cent of pre-Covid levels.
Is THIS why Omicron is spreading so rapidly? Study claims ultra-infectious variant replicates in airways 70 TIMES quicker than Delta
The Omicron variant multiplies 70 times faster than Delta in the airways, according to a study which may explain why the mutant virus is spreading at a ferocious pace.
Hong Kong University researchers also found the new variant replicates 10 times slower in the lungs than its predecessor.
That finding lends weight to the theory it is milder than the past variants, something which doctors in South Africa have been claiming for weeks.
The researchers exposed lung tissue in a laboratory to the original Covid strain that was identified in Wuhan last year, along with the two variants, to compare how the viruses behave after infection.
Omicron replicated faster in the bronchus — tubes connecting the windpipe and lungs — suggesting people with the strain may be more infectious.
Higher viral loads nearer the throat means people are more likely to breathe out viral particles.
Delta was found to duplicate much quicker in the lungs, where more of the virus can lead to the most severe illness.
The finding may be the biological clue behind why doctors insist people infected with the strain only suffer cold-like symptoms.
This was down from 63 per cent the previous week (to December 2) and 72 per cent the week before that (to November 25).
Omicron was first reported in the UK on November 21 – and, since then, weekly train ticket sales have dropped from 68 per cent of pre-pandemic levels to just 59 per cent for the week ending December 11.
During a press conference last Wednesday, Mr Johnson urged people in England to work from home where possible from yesterday, which brought the country in line with the rest of the UK.
It comes as Professor Whitty called for limits on socialising last night despite Mr Johnson insisting festive plans should not be cancelled over Omicron.
In a sign of the divisions between scientists and No 10, the chief medical officer gave a downbeat assessment of the Covid variant, warning of a huge surge in cases.
He cautioned against reports that Omicron was a milder strain, said a ‘substantial’ rise in hospitalisations was ‘nailed on’ and warned the NHS could face serious staff shortages as doctors and nurses fell ill.
Professor Whitty issued a clear message on Christmas socialising, suggesting people should ‘prioritise’ and not meet friends if they hoped to see their families. He added: ‘Don’t mix with people you don’t have to.’
But, speaking at a tense press conference in Downing Street, the Prime Minister struck a markedly more upbeat tone, hailing record booster jab figures as evidence of a ‘great national fightback’ against Omicron.
Third dose rates were double those in the EU, he said, adding: ‘Let’s keep going. Let’s carry on giving Omicron both barrels. Let’s slow its spread and give the vaccines more time.’
He urged care when seeing loved ones and friends – including taking a test before meeting anyone vulnerable – but insisted there was no need to limit Christmas activities.
‘We are not cancelling events or closing hospitality,’ he said. ‘We are not cancelling people’s parties or their ability to mix. What we are saying is think carefully before you go about what kind of event it is.
‘Are you likely to meet people who are vulnerable? Get a test, make sure there is ventilation, wear a mask on transport.’
Downing Street insisted Mr Johnson would not hesitate to impose further restrictions if necessary, despite being rocked on Tuesday night by a revolt of 100 Tory MPs over the introduction of Plan B measures such as Covid passports.
Revellers enjoy a night out in Leeds last night as they continue to attend nightclubs despite the vaccine passport requirement
Revellers are not dettered from having a good night out in Newcastle last night even though Covid infections are on the rise
A young woman shows her Covid passport to a bouncer outside a nightclub in Nottingham city centre last night
People sit outside a bar in London’s Soho last night as vaccine passports become a requirement at large indoor venues
People display their Covid passes as they arrive at Heaven nightclub in London last night ahead of a House Gospel Choir gig
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing at Downing Street in London yesterday
No 10 said MPs, who depart for their Christmas break tonight, would be recalled to legislate for new curbs if needed. Downing Street hopes the country can get through Christmas without the need for further sweeping restrictions.
But Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, told MPs that Omicron was ‘probably the most significant threat’ since the start of the pandemic – and warned that case numbers were likely to hit ‘staggering’ levels.
Professor Graham Medley, one of the Government’s leading modelling experts, said there was a ‘very real possibility’ the NHS would be overwhelmed next month.
Dr Nikki Kanani, director of primary care for the NHS, urged football fans not to attend stadiums this weekend unless it’s to ‘get a jab’ at a pop-up site.