LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday announced tougher measures such as work from home where possible, expanded face mask rules and use of COVID-19 vaccination certificates for entry to venues, as another 131 cases of the new Omicron variant were recorded, taking the total to 568.
The UK government's so-called "Plan B" winter strategy comes in force in stages starting this Friday, in an effort to slow the spread of the highly transmissible variant first detected in South Africa, which Johnson said shows a doubling time of two or three days.
Addressing a Downing Street media briefing, he said all signs indicate that Omicron transmits more rapidly than the previously dominant Delta variant of COVID-19.
"From this Friday, we will further extend the legal requirement to wear face masks in public indoor venues, including theatres and cinemas. We will reintroduce guidance to work from home, from Monday work from home if you can, go to work if you must but work from home if you can," said Johnson.
"We'll also make the NHS COVID pass mandatory for entry into nightclubs and venues where large crowds gather, including unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people, and seated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue with more than 10,000 people," he said, adding that this will come into effect from next week.
Johnson once again called on everyone to come forward for their COVID vaccinations, including all adults now eligible for a third top-up booster dose.
"We must be humbled in the face of this virus. As soon as it becomes clear that the boosters are capable of holding this Omicron variant and we have boosted enough people to do that job of keeping Omicron in equilibrium, we will be able to move forward as before. Please everybody play your part and get boosted," he said.
The government had so far stopped short of enforcing Plan B and issued guidelines for compulsory face masks on transport and some indoor settings, such as shops.
"We now have, in the Omicron variant, a variant that is spreading much faster than any that we have seen before. That is why I ask everybody to go to get their booster jab as soon as they are called to come forward," said Johnson, when asked about Plan B in Parliament on Wednesday.
In total, the UK recorded 51,342 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours on Wednesday and a further 161 people have died within 28 days of testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
It comes as the health service marked one year since its very first COVID-19 vaccine rollout, when 90-year-old Margaret Keenan received a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at University Hospital in Coventry.
"Since the first jab was delivered one year ago today, our phenomenal vaccine rollout has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and given us the best possible protection against COVID-19," said Johnson.
"Our fight against the virus is not over yet, but vaccines remain our first and best line of defence against the virus, so the best way to continue to protect yourself and your loved ones is to get behind the vaccine programme and get boosted as soon as you're eligible," he said.
In light of the new Omicron variant and following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the government expanded its top-up booster dose programme to all adults over 18 and announced that all eligible people will be offered a top-up jab by the end of January, as well as halving the minimum gap between second doses and boosters to three months.
To speed up the vaccination programme, around 450 military personnel have been drafted in to support deployment, with extra community pharmacy sites, hospital hubs, and pop-up sites opening in convenient locations across the country.
NHS England has also launched a recruitment drive for 10,000 new vaccinators, administration staff, healthcare support workers and volunteers to join the national vaccination mission.
The National Health Service (NHS) said almost 21 million boosters and third doses have been administered in the UK.
Everyone over the age of 40 who had their second dose at least three months ago will soon be able to book an appointment for their booster jab.
Younger age groups will be invited by the NHS in order of age.
The NHS pointed to a recent real-world study on the effectiveness of booster vaccines against the dominant Delta variant by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which shows top-up jabs boost protection back up to over 90 per cent against symptomatic COVID-19 in adults aged over 50 two weeks after being vaccinated.