Boris Johnson is currently considering new COVID restrictions amid warnings the NHS could be overwhelmed without further measures to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.
The PM ruled out any immediate changes on Monday afternoon, but said the government would not hesitate to take further action if necessary.
Experts have said Omicron cases are now doubling every two days and the variant’s faster transmissibility means it is “coming at us like an express train”.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned daily hospital admissions could reach 3,000 without swift action.
Johnson has said he is willing to recall parliament to allow MPs to vote on any new regulations for England.
However, that could prove politically problematic for the prime minister, with a number of Tory MPs objecting to any further controls.
On Monday, a further 91,743 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases were recorded in the UK - the second highest daily total recorded since the pandemic began.
Watch: Ministers reportedly resist calls for new restrictions before Christmas
Christmas Day lockdown ruled out
Following a five-hour cabinet meeting on Monday, Boris Johnson ruled out bringing in new restrictions "immediately".
However, the PM said his government reserves the “possibility of taking further action” to protect public health due to the spread of the Omicron variant.
Multiple reports suggest that restrictions are likely be introduced between Christmas and New Year.
On a practical level, it would be difficult to bring in restrictions this week without acting immediately.
Doing so would require recalling parliament, which requires 48 hours notice. By that time, millions of people would already have travelled across the country for Christmas.
It would still be possible for the PM to give non legally binding advice to limit contacts, as in Scotland.
The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty briefed ministers on the latest data during the talks.
Downing Street denied it was an emergency meeting, saying ministers were being updated on a fast-changing situation.
Options under consideration
Johnson has been presented with three options to tackle the spread of the virus by officials, according to the Daily Telegraph.
The paper reported they range from guidance asking people to limit indoor contacts, to rules on household mixing, social distancing and a curfew on pubs and restaurants and, thirdly, a full lockdown.
The Times reported a two-week circuit breaker after Christmas was the most likely option, with draft regulations showing there could be a ban on indoor mixing, and pubs and restaurants may be told to only operate an outdoor service.
The Mirror’s political editor Pippa Crerar reported new measures could be similar to Step 2 restrictions from earlier this year, which included:
Outside-only service for pubs and restaurants
Limits on numbers of social contacts
Non-essential retail and hairdressers staying open
Gyms staying open for people exercising alone
Limits on guest lists for weddings and funerals
Sage has warned restrictions “similar in scale to the national lockdown” are needed to keep hospital admissions from coronavirus below previous peaks.
Modelling showed that if ministers stuck to the current Plan B measures, there would be a peak of 3,000 per day.
Advice included that indoor mixing is the “biggest risk factor” for the spread of Omicron, and that large gatherings risked creating “multiple spreading events”.
Minutes from a Sage meeting on Thursday said stricter measures could be needed including “reducing group sizes, increasing physical distancing, reducing duration of contacts and closing high-risk premises”.
The experts warned that even if transmission rates were reduced, hospital admission levels were likely to be between 1,000 and 2,000 per day in England by the end of the year.
Sage warned that delaying introducing stricter measures until 2022 would “greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it is less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings”.
Watch: How the world could be better after COVID