Boris Johnson refuses to rule out Christmas Covid disruption

Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock

Boris Johnson has refused to guarantee that he will not have to disrupt Christmas gatherings for a second year running by imposing Covid restrictions, though he insisted it was “very much not the plan”.

Last year the prime minister repeatedly struck an upbeat note about Christmas before imposing stringent last-minute conditions preventing many people from seeing friends and family as the Alpha variant spread rapidly.

Days before the tough new restrictions were announced, Johnson taunted the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, that he wanted to “cancel Christmas”.

This year Johnson appears to be sticking to the government’s cautious new line of not giving any guarantees about what the virus response may demand. Asked whether he would promise not to ruin a second Christmas in a row, Johnson said: “That is very much not the plan.

“I just want to go back to what I said about plan A and plan B,” he added. “Plan A is what we’re on, and plan B is what we might have to do. It’s a graduated series of steps and we certainly don’t want or expect to have to do anything like last Christmas.”

Confronted with remarks he made last year about 2021 being a “two-turkey Christmas,” he joked that people could defrost last year’s bird.

Last week the government set out its “plan A” for managing the pandemic through the autumn and winter, involving booster jabs for over-50s and vaccinations for 12-15-year-olds. Ministers also set out a series of contingency plans, including potentially making masks mandatory in some settings and reinstating work-from-home advice.

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There was no mention in the document of lockdowns, and the government is confident it can manage the pandemic with more modest measures given the high rates of vaccination.

But the plan also warned: “There remains considerable uncertainty, and scenarios which place the NHS under extreme and unsustainable pressure remain plausible.” At another point it said: “The nature of the virus means it is not possible to give guarantees.”

Johnson was speaking as he arrived in the US for a three-day visit, after reshuffling his cabinet last week. No 10 hopes that with the worst of the pandemic over, it can shift the focus to delivering on its domestic agenda of “levelling up”, as well as achieving an ambitious outcome to the Cop26 summit in November.

Johnson highlighted the importance of Michael Gove’s role in the newly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and he played down suggestions that the reshuffle meant he was considering an early general election.

“We are focused absolutely resolutely and implacably on the task in hand and in delivering on our manifesto commitments; making the country safer – putting more police on the streets; building more hospitals; fixing social care; uniting and levelling up across the country,” he said.

“We attach massive significance towards what Michael Gove is doing in his new department,” he said, also highlighting the appointment of the former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane to the department to oversee levelling up policy.

“He won’t be there forever but he’s got a lot to offer and again a signal of the seriousness to which we attach this mission of levelling up,” he said.

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