Indoor meetings could be banned for two weeks after Christmas to slow the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, according to The Times.
The newspaper is reporting that officials are drawing up plans for “circuit breaker” restrictions which would see England return to social distancing measures last seen in April.
The proposed regulations would re-impose “step two” of the Prime Minister’s allegedly irreversible spring roadmap to freedom.
This would see indoor mixing banned except for work purposes and pubs and restaurants limited to table service outdoors.
Schools and shops would remain open and there would be no formal “stay at home” order but friends and families would only be able to see each other in groups of six outdoors.
Shielding for the most vulnerable would return and weddings and funerals would be limited to 15 and 30 people respectively.
Ministers are yet to formally consider the plans but sources told The Times that parliament could potentially be recalled week to debate the restrictions, suggesting measures could be implemented as soon as December 27 or 28.
This means the festive season would be sharply interrupted by the most restrictive measures put forward by the government in nine months.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not yet approved any further measures, and remains insistent he is not “shutting things down.”
This follows internal data from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group (SPi-M) predicting peak admissions of between 3,000 and 10,000 per day for Covid-19 related treatments, a vast increase on current totals of around 900 per day that could overwhelm NHS services.
Senior health advisers believe that a two-week period of restrictions could have hospitalisations to a more manageable 1,500 to 5,000 admissions per day.
Admissions peaked at 4,000 a day in England last year.
Meanwhile, 93,045 Covid-19 cases were reported across the UK on Friday, the third successive record-breaking day – with estimations of an R number now approaching four.
There have been mixed signals from data published on the Omicron variant.
Yesterday, a troubling report published by Imperial College London suggested there is no evidence the new variant is less harmful than the Delta strain and estimated the booster jabs can only provide between 55 and 80 per cent protection.
By contrast, the latest findings from South Africa which first suffered a wave of Omicron cases – suggest the variant is up to 30 per cent milder and that case increases have begun to decline already.
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s claim earlier this week there were 200,000 omicron infections a day has been abandoned by officials, who say it is no longer valid because of behavioural changes.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned this week that omicron infections were doubling every 1.9 days. But a methodology memo published quietly by the UKHSA on Thursday states it is now wrong to assume that the doubling rate will remain constant, and so should no longer be used.
While more measures before Christmas have not been ruled out, Johnson is reluctant to toughen restrictions after he suffered a humiliating by-election defeat in North Shropshire and a historic rebellion by 100 MPs against his Plan B measures – which were pushed through only with Labour votes.
Key scientific advisers are reportedly waiting for firmer data on the risks of Omicron, with Johnson wanting to assess the impact of measures imposed over the past week.
He is understood to believe that with towns and cities emptying as people become more cautious, there may be no need to tighten rules further.
The Prime Minister has been accused of embracing ‘lockdown by stealth’ measures, which present a worst-of-both-worlds situation for businesses.
Earlier this week alongside chief medical officer Chris Whitty, Johnson encouraged people to avoid unnecessary socials and to get the booster vaccine.
This has contributed to a sharp decline in footfall across London and public transport, with businesses hit by reduced customers while not being protected by the financial support offered during official lockdowns.
The increasing pressure from businesses led to Chancellor Rishi Sunak returning from California yesterday to work on a financial package to provide protections for the hospitality sector, with extra help expected to be announced in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the vaccine rollout gathers pace with Johnson aiming to offer boosters to all adults before the end of the year – with nearly a million jabs delivered on Friday.