Britain's Queen Elizabeth II has been forced to call off traditional Christmas plans at her Sandringham estate in Norfolk, eastern England, and will stay on at Windsor Castle amidst a surge in coronavirus cases being driven by the Omicron variant of COVID-19. On Monday, she took what Buckingham Palace referred to as a "personal decision" to also call off plans to travel to Sandringham, where members of the royal family gather for church on Christmas morning.
The 95-year-old monarch had already called off an annual pre-Christmas lunch tradition for royal family members due to a surge in coronavirus cases being driven by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
"It reflects a precautionary approach," Buckingham Palace aides were quoted as saying.
It is the second year the pandemic has caused the cancellation of the Queen's traditional Christmas trip to Sandringham and the first without her husband Prince Philip, who passed away in April. The couple had spent Christmas together last year at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, south-east England.
This year, family members are expected to visit the monarch over the Christmas period at the castle and "all appropriate guidelines" will be followed, the palace said. Though it is unconfirmed which members of the family would be visiting over the course of this weekend.
The change of plan is in response to growing concerns about the pandemic and the Omicron variant, amid calls for limiting contacts during the Christmas festivities. Ahead of Christmas, the Queen generally invites her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to join her at Buckingham Palace in London before she departs for her annual Christmas stay at Sandringham.
This marks the second year when the pre-Christmas and Christmas get-togethers have been called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It comes as the government said it is monitoring data "hour by hour" on whether legal restrictions need to be imposed on Christmas gatherings as the UK recorded another daily COVID high of 91,743 infections.
"Obviously, there's considerable uncertainty within the Omicron data - we're concerned about the increasing growth in cases, particularly in London," said UK Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay.
With reference to further lockdown measures, he added: "But there is a considerable time lag between those catching the infection and presenting as cases at hospital and of course, that needs to be looked at... alongside the booster campaign, the increase in treatments, the changes in behaviour as a consequence of Plan B, which will also have an impact on those hospital admissions.
"We're balancing that against the wider economic consequences of any further restrictions which also carry health risks... in terms of the mental health consequences, for example, as well as those wider economic consequences." Current Plan B rules for England include COVID vaccine passes for events, face masks in most indoor settings and people being urged to work from home if they can. Other parts of the United Kingdom have similar rules, with Scotland asking people to limit social contact to three households at a time in the run-up to Christmas and Wales closing nightclubs from December 27.
Meanwhile, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that a New Year's Eve celebration event planned at Trafalgar Square will not go ahead because of the surge in Omicron cases in the UK capital. He said the event, for 6,500 key workers and members of the public, was being cancelled "in the interests of public safety".
"This will be very disappointing for many Londoners, but we must take the right steps to reduce the spread of the virus," said Khan.
"I'm proud that we will still have an incredible broadcast spectacular to watch on our screens, which will showcase our great city to the rest of the world," he said.
Khan said more than 65,500 new confirmed cases have been recorded in the capital in the past seven days. It has caused a 29 per cent increase in London hospital admissions in the last week, while the city remains under the purview of a "major incident" to aid with the increased load.
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