Time is running out to act before 2022 arrives after the prime minister stayed silent, even as daily UK infections topped 100,000 for the first time and the rest of the UK imposed crackdowns.
The cabinet – whose approval is needed for new measures – is “not expected” to meet before Christmas and neither is a decision on the recall of parliament, The Independent understands.
Next Wednesday is thought to be the last day MPs can be brought back to pass legislation in time for New Year’s Eve, suggesting an announcement must be made before the Christmas break.
The delay will come as a relief to hospitality and entertainment businesses desperate not to have to “cancel new year”, after the threat to Christmas gatherings was lifted on Tuesday.
Gillian Keegan, the health minister, argued the wait-and-see approach – with some emerging data suggesting the Omicron variant is less dangerous than feared – was “better” than curbing people’s freedoms now.
But the first minister of Wales, where the “rule of 6”, table service only and 2-metre social distancing will be restored in hospitality settings from Boxing Day, tore into the indecision in London.
“I think that the UK government is in a state of paralysis about all of this,” Mark Drakeford said, as he announced the restrictions.
“We see the reports of infighting within the cabinet. There are, as I would see it, sensible voices urging the prime minister to act to protect the NHS and to protect people’s lives as he has in previous waves.”
Mr Drakeford dismissed the claim of inconclusive evidence, adding: “I don’t believe it’s because they don’t see the data. They see the data, but they’re not prepared to act on it.”
Mr Johnson found himself isolated after Wales followed Scotland in taking action, a day after Nicola Sturgeon limited football crowds to just 500 fans and ordered table service only in pubs.
In Northern Ireland, nightclubs will close and only 3 households will be allowed to meet indoors from next Monday.
The case for delay was bolstered by the first published study into the extent to which soaring Omicron infections will trigger a surge in hospital admissions, potentially swamping the NHS.
The Scottish study stated: “Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of Covid-19 hospitalisation when compared to Delta.”
A leaked study by the UK Health Security Agency is thought to echo that finding, that people who fall ill with Omicron are less likely to become severely sick than those who contract Delta, the variant it is replacing.
However, cases are not necessarily mild enough to avoid large numbers of hospitalisations, the data to be published before Christmas is expected to say.
Tony Blair backed Mr Johnson’s decision to delay tougher rules, but criticised his failure to be “frank with people” and said the decision was political, not based on claims of missing data.
“It’s really because the pain of going into a full lockdown, and with this variant that’s the only thing that would really work,” the former prime minister told Times Radio.
“If you were taking a purely precautionary view of this, you would impose further restrictions, probably quite draconian restrictions,” he said, but warned “the public’s just been through too much”.
Mr Johnson has also been undermined by anger over lockdown-busting No 10 parties a year ago, which has made people less willing to accept restrictions.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, argued decisions about new year curbs are still “under review”.
“It is fast-changing, the situation, there’s more data not just here from home but from abroad. We keep an eye on all that data and discuss it with our expert advisers,” he said.