Britain tightens COVID-19 rules to fight Omicron as Christmas party scandal engulfs Boris Johnson government

December 8, 2021, 5:37 PM UTC

The U.K. government will reimpose more stringent COVID-19 restrictions, including advising people to work from home, in response to rising cases of the Omicron variant. The government said that people should work from home, when possible, beginning Monday, and that other new rules, such as face mask mandates in theaters and cinemas, will go into effect from this Friday.

The government has decided to activate a set of policies it dubbed “Plan B” to combat rising infection levels. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there had been 568 cases of the Omicron variant detected so far in the U.K. and that this was almost certainly an underestimate of the number of infected people in the country. He said the number of Omicron infections was doubling every two to three days. “We are seeing growth in cases here in the U.K. that mirrors the rapid increases previously seen in South Africa,” Johnson said. “It’s now the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B.”

In addition to the work from home advice and the new face mask rules, the government will require those attending certain indoor venues, including nightclubs, show proof of vaccination to enter. This will also apply to any indoor venue with seats for more than 500 as well as seated outdoor venues with capacity for 4,000 people or more, and any venue with seating for more than 10,000 people. Johnson said that for the moment people who have had both of their initial COVID-19 jabs would be eligible for these vaccine passports but that it was continuing to monitor this and might at some point require that people receive boosters as well. The U.K. is currently rolling out booster shots to those over 40 years-old, and government officials say that so far about one third of those eligible have had their third shot.

The new rules are being introduced after the number of new daily COVID-19 cases being reported was set to surpass 50,000 for the first time since July—and Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical advisor, noted the rapid spread of the newly-detected Omicron variant was coming on top of a continued high prevalence of the Delta variant of the virus. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London and a member of the government’s scientific advisory group, told BBC Radio that, at its current pace, Omicron would overtake the earlier Delta variant as the dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the U.K.

The government scientific committee has advised that this rate of infection could lead to more than 1,000 new hospitalizations per day by Jan. 1 if the Omicron variant is allowed to continue to spread unchecked.

But some commentators and members of the opposition Labour Party have questioned the timing of the government’s Plan B announcement. They claim Prime Minister Boris Johnson is attempting to distract public attention from an emerging scandal over whether his office hosted a staff Christmas party last year, at a time when such gatherings were banned. Johnson has previously insisted that no such party took place.

ITV News obtained leaked video outtakes from a mock press conference—at which the Prime Minister’s spokesperson rehearsed answers to possible questions from the press—during which Johnson aides joke about how to respond if the media were to ask about reports Downing Street held a Christmas party. “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine,” one aide suggests in the video. “Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting,” Allegra Stratton, the Downing Street spokesperson at the time, quips in reply. One aide is heard to say, “No joking.” Stratton laughs, noting “This is recorded,” before saying “This fictional party was a business meeting.” At the time, although parties were prohibited, in-person business gatherings were permitted.

British media have cited anonymous sources saying that the Christmas party did take place on Dec. 18. While still denying any party took place, Johnson has apologized that the video caused offense and for “the impression that it gives.” He has also ordered a Cabinet investigation into the matter. Stratton, who left Downing Street to become a spokesperson for the COP26 Climate Summit, said she was resigning from that role due to the controversy.

If the press reports are true, it will not be the first time that Johnson and senior members of his government have been caught breaking their own COVID-19 restrictions. A former top Johnson aide, Dominic Cummings, was caught traveling hundreds of miles from his home, even though he had COVID-19 symptoms, during the country’s first national lockdown in 2020, and Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, resigned after video leaked showing the married minister kissing an aide in his office, in violation of social distancing guidance.

The new scandal also emerges at a time when the Johnson government is facing charges of corruption and sleaze pertaining to everything from how contracts for COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment were awarded to questions about whether political donors and influential businessmen paid for the redecoration of Johnson’s official residence and treated him to expensive vacations. A Parliamentary standards committee cleared Johnson of accusations that he violated House of Commons ethics rules when he stayed in a luxury villa on the Caribbean island of Mustique that was paid for by a Conservative Party donor, but it faulted him for not doing more to try to understand how the vacation was being funded.

Other parts of the government’s Plan B have already been implemented—including renewing the requirement that masks be worn in shops and hair salons and on public transport. But now the government is extending the mask mandate to all other indoor settings, including theaters and cinemas, except situations where people are eating and drinking. Other measures that have already been put in place include a requirement that people arriving in the U.K. from abroad self-isolate until they receive a negative result from a PCR test taken within two days of arriving. Johnson said that anyone who comes into contact with a suspected Omicron case will be required to take daily lateral flow tests, regardless of their vaccination status. He said this testing requirement would prevent the kind of disruption to the economy that would occur if all contacts were required to self-isolate for 10 days, as was the requirement at early stages in the pandemic.

This story has been updated to reflect the comments from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s press conference on the activation of “Plan B” on December 8.

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.