Why Boris Johnson risks re-kindling Rishi Sunak quarrel over Covid rules

Jonathan Van-Tam says 'no time to delay' over Omicron variant

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The Prime Minister resisted the urge to fully implement his Covid winter ‘Plan B’ on Saturday, but could this be partly because he doesn’t want to cause friction within his own cabinet? In the past, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has clashed with Mr Johnson over the impact restrictions could have on the UK economy.

Over the weekend, the PM held a Downing Street press conference where he revealed a new set of Covid restrictions to the UK public.

The measures have been brought into force to combat the spread of the new Covid variant, Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa last Wednesday.

From 4am on Tuesday, it will be compulsory, in England, for anyone – unless they’re medically exempt – to wear face coverings whilst in shops and on public transport.

Close contacts of suspected Omicron cases will also have to self-isolate, regardless of an individual’s vaccination status.

Although the PM has imposed several other measures, he has refused to fully roll out his Covid ‘Plan B’, which includes issuing advice to people to work from home and extending vaccine passports in England.

The news is likely to be welcomed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who in the past has voiced concerns about how Covid measures have adversely impacted the economy.

As the UK was emerging from its first national lockdown in the summer of 2020, Mr Sunak took particular aim at what he labelled as the “very cautious” experts on the Government’s scientific advisory body, Sage.

At the time, it was thought that the Chancellor wished to see restrictions lifted more quickly so that the Treasury could begin to recover from the strain that the Covid pandemic had placed on it.

However, despite not yet issuing tighter restrictions, there are concerns that the PM may soon have to act if the Omicron variant cannot be contained.

Speaking on Saturday, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, warned that the UK public may need to “face up” to more measures if cases begin to rise.

He said: “At the moment, the models are more ‘if it spreads very fast, of course it’s going to spread very fast and go into a lot of places, and if it spreads less fast it’s going to do so less’.

“But if it’s very transmissible and does cause a big escape, then clearly that’s a major issue we have to face up to.”

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Last week South Africa became the first country to report an official case of the Omicron variant to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Initial evidence from Omicron cases suggests that the variant carries with it a higher risk of reinfection.

Cases of the strain have since been reported around the world, including the UK, which announced its first two official cases on Saturday.

The emergence of the variant has prompted the UK, EU and US to issue travel bans on countries in Southern Africa, such as Botswana, Zambia and Angola.

What are the new Covid measures?

Every individual who enters the UK – other than those arriving from the Common Travel Area that includes the Channel Islands and Ireland – will have to take a PCR test by the end of the second day following their arrival and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

All contacts of suspected Omicron cases will have to self-isolate regardless of their vaccination status.

From Tuesday in England, face coverings will become compulsory to wear in shops and public transport. However, bars and restaurants will be exempt.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland face coverings are already mandatory on public transport and many indoor areas.

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