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 - Sputnik International, 1920
Omicron COVID Strain
The new COVID variant was initially detected in South Africa and Botswana and sparked major concerns due to its high number of mutations (32). The WHO dubbed the strain Omicron and warned it may prove to be more transmissible and dangerous than other coronavirus variants.

Johnson Slams Labour Call for More Lockdowns After Rayner Fuel Bill Attack

© REUTERS / REUTERS TVWeekly question time debate at Parliament in London
Weekly question time debate at Parliament in London - Sputnik International, 1920, 05.01.2022
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Sir Keir Starmer's Labour Party has taken its first significant poll lead over Boris Johnson's governing Conservatives since the 2019 general election. But that could be eroded by the opposition's demands for a stronger response to latest wave of COVID-19 infections.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has hit back at Labour attacks over VAT on fuel by stressing opposition calls for stricter lockdown measures.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner stood in for Sir Keir Starmer at the first Prime Minister's Questions of the year after he tested positive for COVID-19 for the second time.
Rayner attempted to pin blame on the government for soaring international gas market prices that have seen 27 energy-billing firms in the deregulated market gone bust.
And she reheated October's row over the 2.5 percent rise in the National Insurance social security tax to pay for clearing the post-pandemic backlog of National Health Service appointments and treatments and subsidies for elderly care, saying the tax hit working families.
The PM hit back that Labour had opposed lifting lockdown — which he said caused economic damage and unemployment as well as disrupting education — last summer.

"They would've kept us in lockdown in July", Johnson accused. "When Omicron hit, they were calling for further restrictions. We've been able to keep this country moving and keep the economy growing and keep the money coming into people's pockets".

Rayner also seized on questions raised at Monday's Downing Street press conference about abolishing Value-Added Tax on household energy bills, urging the government do so to tackle fuel poverty.
But Johnson slammed Labour's "bare-faced cheek" of demanding a tax cut that was only possible thanks to Britain's exit from the EU — which the opposition party opposed.
VAT on gas and electricity is charged at a discounted five percent for households, but businesses pay the the full rate of 20 per cent. Dropping the tax would save a family with monthly energy bills of £100 roughly £1 a week.
The tax, a condition of joining the European Economic Community in 1973, was first slapped on fuel in 1994 Tory chancellor Norman Lamont at the then-going rate of eight per cent. Lamont's labour successor Gordon Brown introduced the discount in 1997.
The two opponents traded quips as well as accusations across the floor of the house of commons, with Rayner making a joke at the expense of the PM's infamously unruly hair.
Johnson slipped in an early gag, playing on Rayner's role as shadow minister for the future of work — and her stated ambitions to take over from Starmer as Labour leader and himself as PM.
"We know the future job she has in mind", he said, wishing her well in her "aspiration" to oust Starmer.
Rayner referenced rumoured rumblings of discontent with Johnson's leadership on the Conservative backbenches, replying: "I've heard on the grapevine there might be a vacancy for prime minister soon, so maybe I should have aspirations!"
But the PM returned again and again to Labour's opposition to relaxing COVID-19 rules, despite increasing evidence that the new Omicron variant has far milder symptoms and a much lower mortality rate than previous strains — which Johnson has claimed credit for thanks to the successful vaccination drive.
“When Omicron presented itself, what did they go for? They reached for the lever of more restrictions", Johnson replied. “They said lockdown, we said boosters! They carp from the sidelines, we get on with the job!”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford reminded the house that it was Tory backbenchers and Cabinet ministers who resisted harsher lockdown measures before Christmas, not the opposition.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual press conference to update the nation on the status of the Covid-19 pandemic, in the Downing Street briefing room in central London on January 4, 2022. - Sputnik International, 1920, 04.01.2022
Omicron COVID Strain
Johnson Confident UK Can 'Ride Out' Omicron Wave Without Another COVID-19 Lockdown

Hard Luck Sir Keir

Starmer's second bout of coronavirus was statistically very unlucky. According to a large-scale Public Health England survey in 2021, the chances of catching it again after a first infection are between 1 in 250 and 1 in 75,000.
A poll taken on Monday showed the recent Labour advantage over the governing Conservatives — the first since the 2019 general election — already slipping.

No Deepening of Lockdown

In a separate speech after PMQs, Johnson ruled out further pandemic restrictions in the face of the Omicron variant.
The exchange of blows between Johnson and Rayner came just an hour after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a U-turn on her previous refusal to follow England, Scotland, and Wales in reducing isolation times for those with COVID-19 from 10 days to seven.
Sturgeon launched into a rant at a virtual press conference on 17 December, when Scottish Mail political editor Mike Blackley suggested the move.
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