The government has announced new restrictions which will come into place on Tuesday after a new variant of concern, Omicron, was identified.
At least nine Omicron cases have been reported in the UK so far. The variant is known to be more transmissible than previous strains, and can spread between double-vaccinated people.
So does this mean Britain could soon be heading for its fourth lockdown in less than two years?
Will there be another lockdown?
There are no current plans to introduce a lockdown any time soon.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has explained that the new restrictions of mandatory face masks in shops and on public transport, along with tightened rules about international travel, are “temporary and precautionary” measures which will be reviewed in three weeks.
However, he did refuse to “rule anything out” in early November.
Health secretary Sajid Javid has expressed hopes that these new measures could be lifted again “within weeks”.
Health minister Edward Argar has also said he did not anticipate any more restrictions coming into place over the coming weeks, as scientists are still trying to understand what kind of impact the new variant might have on vaccine efficacy and infected individuals.
Hospitalisations will also need to reach almost 1,500 a day for the NHS to be overwhelmed, triggering another lockdown. Government data shows there are currently around 880 people admitted each day.
Deaths from Covid remain relatively low, too, compared to the previous rates seen shortly before lockdowns in March 2020, November 2020, and January 2021.
However, with at least nine cases of the highly transmissible omicron variant now confirmed in the UK, things may change. Scientists are yet to discover how the vaccines will respond to this new mutation.
The prime minister has still refused to implement plan B – mandatory face masks in all public settings and working from home – relying on the vaccine take-up and boosters instead.
The government has promised to keep an eye on the data but also appears wary of bringing about the same anti-lockdown protests seen across Europe.
Only a “firebreak” lockdown will be used if necessary, although business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News in October: “I would rule this out.”
What’s happening in the rest of the world?
Covid cases have certainly been climbing in Europe in recent weeks.
Austria became the first Western country to go into another full, national lockdown in November while Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn warned that by the end of winter, most of the country will be “vaccinated, cured or dead”.
The Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Croatia, Ireland, Slovakia and Czechia are all struggling with infections too.
However, Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, part of the government independent advisory panel SAGE, told Radio 4′s Today programme that the UK has already gone through the wave Europe is experiencing, and so the population has greater immunity compared to Germany and Austria.
Most of Europe’s cases are believed to be related to the Delta variant.
But at least 13 passengers who travelled to the Netherlands from South Africa, where Omicron was first reported, have tested positive for the Omicron variant.
Belgium, Germany, Italy and Australia have reported Omicron cases too, along with the UK, triggering worries that there could be a global surge in infections depending on how transmissible Omicron is.
Will Christmas be cancelled?
As Christmas 2020 was effectively cancelled just six days before December 25, this is a major concern for many families this year.
The prime minister told reporters that, despite the new variant, Christmas would be “considerably better” compared to last year.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said in October: “With winter ahead, we cannot blow it now.
“Although vaccinations are our primary form of defence, there are many more things we can all do to help contain the spread of this virus, like meeting outdoors where it is possible.”
He added Christmas is possible “if we all play our part”.
Javid has maintained this message despite the discovery of Omicron, telling the media: “I think people should continue with their plans as normal for Christmas. I think it’s going to be a great Christmas.”
Javid did add that he was not offering any “guarantees”.
Dr Mike Tildesley, part of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) told Sky News, “the idea of a winter lockdown is a long way away” unless the NHS comes under severe pressure again.
What you can do to stay safe in winter
As the UK’s future with Covid remains difficult to predict, you can reduce your own Covid risk in the upcoming months through several simple measures.
Make sure you ventilate your home for at least 10 minutes every hour. This prevents Covid from building up indoors.
Get vaccinated if you haven’t already and make sure you accept your booster jab when you are called up by the NHS.
Get your flu jab as the annual virus is likely to affect people more this year following last year’s lockdown – catching the flu could then make you more susceptible to Covid.
Wear a mask in crowded places, both indoors and outdoors, and wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you can.
Work from home where possible and reduce the number of people you see, or try to see more people outdoors.