UK health minister doesn't rule out new COVID curbs before Christmas

COVID-19 pandemic in London
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By Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain's health minister on Sunday declined to rule out the chance of further COVID-19 restrictions before Christmas, saying the spread of the Omicron variant was a very fast moving situation.

Britain has reported a surge in Omicron cases, which government advisers said could be just the tip of the iceberg. On Saturday, London's mayor declared a "major incident" to help the city's hospitals cope.

Asked whether he could rule out new restrictions before Christmas, health minister Sajid Javid told BBC Television: "We are assessing the situation, it is very fast moving."

"There are no guarantees in this pandemic I don't think. At this point, we just have to keep everything under review."

Javid said the government was watching the data on an "almost hourly basis" and listening to its scientific advisers and would balance that against the broader impact of restrictions on things such as businesses and education.

He said there was a still a lot that is not known about Omicron but waiting until data is clearer may leave it too late to react to it.

Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay held a meeting of the government's emergency committee on Sunday to discuss the situation with the UK's devolved administrations and agreed to increase their funding to tackle the spread of Omicron.

"They agreed to continue to monitor the emerging data over the coming days, working closely with businesses and public agencies across the UK to understand the impact on industry and services," a Cabinet Office spokesperson said.

More than 100 of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's own Conservative lawmakers voted against the government's latest measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19 earlier this week and Johnson is facing the biggest crisis of his premiership after a litany of scandals and missteps.

Asked if Johnson was too weak to bring in further curbs, Javid said: "No ... if the government felt that further action had to be taken of course we would present that to parliament and it would be for parliament to decide."

The number of confirmed Omicron cases recorded across the country was 37,101 as of 1800 GMT on Dec. 18, the UK Health Security Agency said on Sunday, up by more than 12,000 cases from 24 hours earlier. Twelve people believed to have had the Omicron variant had died as of Friday.

Javid said the actual number of Omicron infections was likely to be a lot higher.

The number of all new COVID-19 cases reported in official data on Sunday was 82,886, up 51.9% over the seven days to Dec. 19 compared with the previous week.

Javid said the government believed about 60% of new COVID-19 cases in England were now Omicron.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he thought new restrictions were inevitable otherwise the health service would be on the verge of collapse under the joint pressures of staff shortages and increased hospitalisations.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Susan Fenton, William Maclean)

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