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COVID: New Year's Eve parties in London and Scotland scrapped amid Omicron surge

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By Luke Hurst  with AP
Scotland’s legendary Up Hella Aa Vikings kick off iconic Torchlight Procession launching Edinburgh’s Hogmanay
Scotland’s legendary Up Hella Aa Vikings kick off iconic Torchlight Procession launching Edinburgh’s Hogmanay   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Scotland and London have both moved to cancel New Year's Eve celebrations as the United Kingdom is gripped by a surge of COVID infections, driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant.

The UK has reported record cases in recent days, with 91,743 in the last 24 hours reported on Monday, a rate of 716.1 cases per 100,000 people.

On December 17, there was a daily record of 92,503 cases reported. It means case numbers are higher now than last Christmas when a lockdown was imposed.

This time around, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pushed people to get a boost vaccine but has so far stopped short of imposing harsher restrictions.

But north of the border First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday announced the cancellation of all large events from Boxing Day. This includes Edinburgh's celebrations on New Year's Eve. London mayor Sadiq Khan has done the same in the capital on December 31. At the weekend he declared a "major incident" after a "huge surge" of Omicron cases in the city.

Following a lengthy meeting of his top ministers and scientific advisors, Boris Johnson on Monday said while the government reserves the "possibility of taking further action", it had been decided that the data was not yet persuasive enough to act.

What is different this Christmas?

The UK government has betted heavily on its vaccination campaign to keep the country open and restrictions at a minimum.

But as Omicron emerged and started to spread throughout the UK, the government launched a reinvigorated COVID vaccine booster campaign to get everyone the chance to have their third jab by the end of the year.

Because there is a delay between rising cases and the subsequent rise in hospitalisation and deaths, the data is not yet there to see just how devastating the Omicron wave will be.

While the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser Chris Whitty urged people last week to "prioritise social interactions that really matter to them" this Christmas, the message from the government has been less forthright, with Johnson telling the public he was not going to tell people to cancel parties and gatherings.

The British Medical Association has warned that almost 50,000 doctors, nurses and other National Health Service staff in England could be off sick with COVID-19 by Christmas Day unless additional restrictions are introduced.

The government did pass extra measures last week, such as requiring vaccine passports and extending the mask mandate, but only after a sizeable rebellion from his own MPs, leaving the prime minister to rely on the opposition Labour Party to get the votes in Parliament.

This has left Johnson with less political capital to get stricter measures enforced, as he is under pressure not only from the opposition but also from those within his own party who don’t want to see any further restrictions imposed.

The drastic rise in Omicron cases comes amid a flurry of bad press for the prime minister and his team, with details emerging in the media of parties and social gatherings held last year which appear to have broken the very rules set out by the government at the time.

Giles Wilkes, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Institute for Government, told the AP that Johnson will face increasing pressure from all wings of his party to change course, rather than adding more restrictions to protect the NHS.

“The past month’s political spasms may mark a historical turning point in the story of this administration,” Wilkes said, highlighting pivotal decisions of former Prime Ministers John Major and Gordon Brown that ultimately undermined their standing with voters. “Those are not happy comparisons for the prime minister to contemplate.”

On Sunday, British newspapers were filled with reports on potential contenders for the prime minister’s office, including the chancellor Rishi Sunak, the foreign secretary Liz Truss and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.