Boris Johnson has already been forced to introduce social restrictions to combat the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus and rocketing infection numbers in January could ultimately see him forced to tighten them still further.
The prime minister has already brought back mandatory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops, cinemas, theatres and places of worship, asked citizens to work from home where possible and made an NHS Covid Pass or negative lateral flow test a necessary requirement for entry to crowded venues and events involving mass gatherings.
However, Mr Johnson has so far stuck to his guns and refused to impose tighter restrictions in England for now despite the record-breaking of infection over the New Year, most recently insisting on 3 January that the current “Plan B” measures in place remained the “right” course of action, adding: “The way forward for the country as a whole is to continue with the path that we’re on.
“We’ll keep everything on the review course we keep all measures under review, but the mixture of things that we’re doing at the moment is I think, the right one.”
He previously pledged not to introduce further measures before the Christmas weekend but fears persist they may yet be needed to beat back Omicron, with government scientific advisers pushing for new restrictions as soon as possible to stop the spread and meeting opposition from senior Cabinet ministers reluctant to jeopardise the economy and impose further constraints on public freedom.
The prime minister is understood to be waiting for more concrete data on Omicron to become available and for the high case numbers to begin to translate into a wave of mass hospitalisations before he makes a call on ordering a tighter clampdown, a stance that has seen him accused of “dithering” by opponents.
His next Downing Street press conference to update the British public on the pandemic is expected to take place at 5pm on Tuesday 4 January.
The precise characteristics of the new strain of the virus are still not clear at this early stage in its development, although it is feared it may soon usurp the Delta variant as the dominant strain of Covid-19 given its high transmissibility.
Mr Johnson warned the public in December that a “tidal wave” of infections could break on these shores unless people adhere to the current measures, exercise extreme caution and get their vaccine booster jab as a matter of urgency.
The rollout of third shots has accordingly been greatly expanded to include all over-18s to address the Omicron threat, placing further pressure on the NHS to administer them.
That move came in response to findings by the UK Health Security Agency indicating that two jabs do not offer strong protection against symptomatic infection from Omicron, with the current suite of vaccines less effective against it than they were against Delta.
However, that same analysis also concluded that those who had received a booster remained up to 70 per cent protected, underlining the importance of getting a third shot as soon as possible.
London mayor Sadiq Khan has declared a major incident over the extent of the Omicron outbreak in the capital while NHS England has announced a return to its highest level of emergency preparedness, level four national incident, meaning that the health service’s response will be coordinated as a national effort, rather than led by individual trusts.
Just 59.5 per cent of British adults have had their booster injection so far, although demand is high so that figure should continue to climb rapidly as more people make an appointment and roll up their sleeves.