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The omicron variant is driving a new COVID-19 surge in the U.K.


COVID is once again racing across the United Kingdom, and it's raising fears that the omicron variant could overwhelm hospitals. Meanwhile, Britain's embattled prime minister, Boris Johnson, is considering tougher restrictions, and that's despite opposition from scores of lawmakers in his own party.

For more, we turn to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Frank, give us a snapshot of the coronavirus right now in the U.K.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Good morning, A. It's not a very good picture at all. Cases are rising exponentially. Yesterday, 83,000 official cases, but government advisers say the real number is in the hundreds of thousands. They also say that if the government doesn't put in tougher COVID restrictions very soon, cases could go up anywhere to 600,000 a day to 2 million a day. And the situation here, I think, is seen as so bad that even France and Germany, they're actually now banning British tourists.

MARTÍNEZ: I know Christmas just - what? - five days away. So how's the government responding?

LANGFITT: It has not made a decision yet. They're very anxious about some kind of a backlash from people and from businesses. I think we could see an announcement for new restrictions in the coming days, could be anything from limiting household gatherings to closing pubs and restaurants, maybe before around 10 o'clock or so. But there's also a lot of anxiety around COVID right now. I've seen - it's much higher this week than it was last week. I was just at my corner pub last night. And it was - it was dead. There was hardly anybody there. And clearly, this is partly due to COVID.

MARTÍNEZ: I can't say I blame them, though. But - all right, so what are the political pressures on Boris Johnson as he figures out what to do?

LANGFITT: He's getting a ton of pressure, A, from all sides, really. On Tuesday - this was last week - the British Parliament, they passed what are really kind of mild restrictions. Ninety-nine members of Johnson's own Conservative Party actually rebelled against this. And then over the weekend, we heard that his Brexit minister, Johnson's Brexit minister, a guy named David Frost - he's resigning. He said in his resignation, he hoped that Johnson would not follow what he called, quote, "coercive COVID measures." Now, this morning on the BBC, Dominic Raab - he's the deputy prime minister - he pushed back against this. This is what he said.


DOMINIC RAAB: I'm afraid I don't agree with his analysis. If we hadn't have taken the measures that we have to support public health, to support businesses, to support livelihoods, to support whole communities, we would have seen much more damage done economic and social scarring as well as the public health damage.

MARTÍNEZ: Thing is, though, hasn't Boris Johnson come under intense criticism for appearing to maybe actually ignore some of his own restrictions?

LANGFITT: Yeah, you're exactly right. And this has been a big story over the last couple of weeks. The U.K. government is investigating what seems like a variety of holiday parties at No. 10 Downing St. last year. This was at a time when those sorts of gatherings were banned. Yesterday, on the front page of The Guardian newspaper, there was this picture of what looked a lot to everybody like a cocktail party in Downing Street garden. This is May 2020. The government is saying no, no, this was just a business meeting, didn't break any rules. But you see on the tables bottles of wine, cheese plate, that sort of thing. All of this is politically definitely taking a toll on Johnson. You remember, back in 2019, he won a landslide election. Now his approval ratings are the lowest they've been of his premiership, down to about 29%.

MARTÍNEZ: One more thing - any evidence that this latest surge is affecting the health care system?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there's already signs of it. A number, basically, of National Health Service staff in London have been out sick. That number has actually more than doubled in the last week to 4,700 people. There's a woman I know - her name is Hilary Cummings (ph) - she was over for dinner, and she said her mother recently cracked her pelvis. Took seven hours for an ambulance to arrive. This is how she put it.

HILARY CUMMINGS: If there aren't the people to drive the ambulances and come and give you the help, then you just have to wait until there is one free. And I think that's really frightening that, you know, there's so much COVID around that the poor crews are all sick or having to isolate themselves. So there just aren't the crews to help us.

LANGFITT: And the big concern is that the hospitals are going to be overwhelmed this winter.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.