Covid plan B: Health chief predicts more restrictions in Sheffield this winter

Sheffield’s public health boss fears a ‘Plan B’ of Covid restrictions to control the spread of the Omicron variant is inevitable.

Sheffield’s director of public health has suggested Plan B measures – including advice to work from home and the possible introduction of vaccine passports – are ‘likely’ be introduced in response to rising cases and the spread of the Omicron variant.

Downing Street sources said ‘no decisions have been made’ over possible fresh restrictions, however there is widespread speculation in the press and on social media that further measures are imminent.

The restrictions would be brought in to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed this winter, following reports that Omicron is ‘more transmissable’ than previous strains and would therefore result in more hospitalisations and pressure on the health services.

Greg Fell, director of public health Sheffield.

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Greg Fell, Sheffield’s public health director, has said the signs are ‘worrying’ regarding the potential impact of the Omicron variant circulating at the same time as the Delta.

And he has said any Plan B measures, along with current advice around face coverings and social distancing, should be adhered to in order to prevent more restrictions – such as the closure of venues – from following them.

Mr Fell said: “This is me speculating, but I think Plan B is inevitable. This is because the Omicron variant is here. There’s no two ways about that.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs), in the House of Commons in London on December 8, 2021. PRU/AFP via Getty Images.

"It is only a matter of time before it arrives in Sheffield. It is already prevalent in the South East and London and it is clear that it will get everywhere.

“The most impactful change will be the advice to work from home if you can. It is fair to say that a lot of people are still doing that, and it looks like this will continue for a bit longer.

“This reduces the contact between people and therefore reduces the chance of transmission.”

On the other major policy being speculated over, Mr Fell said he felt that the introduction of vaccine passports for people wishing to enter crowded public spaces is likely.

However, he said he was not sure on its effectiveness in encouraging vaccination among those not yet jabbed.

"I think there will definitely be a push on vaccine certification, that will be the Government approach. But I am not sure what that will look like,” he said.

“The objective is to get vaccine coverage as high as possible and I am not sure vaccine passports would make this higher.”

Mr Fell said that although there was uncertainty around vaccine effectiveness against Omicron, it is still the best defence people have at present.

"The people I am most worried about are the people who have not been vaccinated,” he added. “Covid will catch up with some of them and some of them will become very ill.

"There are, generally speaking, three types of people who have not been vaccinated.

"There are people who have made an informed decision not to have it. That’s their call. It’s a medical intervention and they have to have that choice. If they have decided not to have it, it is hard to persuade them otherwise.

"There’s people who are still scared and unsure and my policy on that is to point them to reliable information and science – not just things people write on social media – and show them the clear evidence that the vaccine reduces the risk of serious illness.

"Then there’s the third group, who have just missed their vaccinations, and I would say to them that it is never to late to get your first jab.

"Omicron appears to be more transmissable than the Delta variant. The maths is that if it is more transmissable then there will be more cases and more people hospitalised.

"The policy is to delay the spread of Omicron. The purpose of delaying the spread is to maximise vaccine related immunity. We can reduce the number of cases, and pressure on the NHS, by ensuring people have their first and second jabs and boosters.”

Scientists at the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have predicted that Omicron will become the dominant variant ‘by Christmas’, with a potential 90,000 infections a day across the country by that point.

However, regarding Sheffield, Mr Fell said: “It is impossible to say accurately what will happen”, and that he would wait for UK-based science rather than basing his predictions on what has happened in other countries.

In spite of this caution, he said that he expected there to be a significant wave of it in ‘mid-January’.

Mr Fell added that, although new restrictions are likely to be imposed, Plan B will also highlight the importance of advice already in place.

"If Plan B goes ahead I think there will be a bigger push on masks,” he said. “They reduce the risk of transmission and by doing that reduce the risk of further restrictions.

"I have not heard anything in the current narrative on Plan B about things like venues closing, and I hope it does not come to that.

"But we have seen that the Government will impose restrictions if they think they need to.

"That is why things like masks and boosters are so important, because they reduce the chance of further restrictions.”

The Covid-O subcommittee of experts is understood to be holding a meeting later on today (Wednesday December 8).

A prominent member of the Sage warned that a full UK-wide lockdown to deal with the threat of the Omicron variant cannot be ruled out, although the current threat posed by the strain remains unclear.

The potential new restrictions come amid controversy surrounding Downing Street, with Boris Johnson under pressure over allegations No 10 staff breached lockdown rules by holding a Christmas party last December.

Footage emerged on Tuesday night of senior aides joking about the party just days after it reportedly occurred in the run-up to Christmas 2020.