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Boris Johnson has said there is a “good chance” he will not impose fresh restrictions to tackle the massive wave of Omicron cases, as he backed sticking with Plan B measures despite acknowledging parts of the NHS will feel “temporarily overwhelmed”.
The Prime Minister confirmed he would advocate to his Cabinet the need to stick with work-from-home guidance, mask-wearing and Covid health passes to “ride out” the wave of infections but warned that anyone who believes the battle against the disease is over is “profoundly wrong”.
With daily lab-confirmed coronavirus cases in England and Scotland exceeding 200,000 for the first time, Mr Johnson acknowledged now is the time for the “utmost caution” but argued the booster rollout has given substantial protection to the nation.
“So together with the Plan B measures that we introduced before Christmas we have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again,” he told a Downing Street press conference on the eve of the review date for the restrictions announced four weeks ago.
“We can keep our schools and our businesses open and we can find a way to live with this virus.”
The Prime Minister accepted the weeks ahead are going to be “challenging” and said “some services will be disrupted by staff absences” as he pledged to “fortify” the NHS to withstand the pressures and protect supply chains.
Under the measures, he said 100,000 “critical workers” including those in transport, policing and food distribution will get lateral flow tests on every working day starting on Monday.
“As our NHS moves to a war footing, I will be recommending to Cabinet tomorrow that we continue with Plan B,” he added.
“Because the public have responded and changed their behaviour, your behaviour, buying valuable time to get boosters in arms and help the NHS to cope with the Omicron wave.”
Pressed on how likely he things it is that further restrictions will be needed, Mr Johnson said “it depends to be absolutely frank” on whether the strain first identified in South Africa behaves in a similar way to it has there and “how quickly it blows through”.
“I would say we have a good chance of getting through the Omicron wave without the need for further restrictions and without the need certainly for a lockdown,” he added.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty acknowledged “some hospitals, some areas of the country” will come under “very substantial pressure over the next couple of weeks” with high numbers of staff isolating over infections compounding the typical winter pressures.
Mr Johnson recognised the NHS is under “huge pressure” while hospital admissions are “high”.
He declined to give a definition of what would constitute the service being overwhelmed, but added that “different trusts and different places, at different moments, will feel at least temporarily overwhelmed”.
He also pledged to give “plenty of time” before changing the definition of fully vaccinated to include a booster dose to obtain the Covid health certificate for entry to large venues.
Chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance said it would be “untenable” to continue with booster doses every few months and that the programme would in the future more closely resemble annual flu jabs.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused Mr Johnson of “complacency” as people struggled to access Covid tests and critical incidents were being declared by hospitals.
He told reporters: “There are serious pressures on the NHS, the Prime Minister has got to be honest with the country about those pressures and even more importantly set out how he plans to address them.”
The press conference was held on the day a further 218,724 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in England and Scotland.
It was the first time the daily recorded figure has passed 200,000, though the number will have been inflated by some delayed reporting from over the holiday period.
The latest NHS England figures show 15,044 patients with Covid-19 were in hospital on Tuesday morning, including 797 requiring mechanical ventilation.
Mr Johnson’s administration in Westminster has stuck with the Plan B restrictions despite tougher restrictions being introduced in other UK nations.
Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London academic whose data was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said infection rates may already be plateauing in London and could fall across the country within weeks.
The member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory panel told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I would say that, with an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week, maybe already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to three weeks.
“Whether they then drop precipitously, or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with Delta back in July of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau, remains to be seen.
“It’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of opening schools again will be.”
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Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation representing health bodies, said the staffing situation in hospitals is “almost impossible” as leaders try to manage their resources.
He told Times Radio “the most pressing element” for many is the number of staff who are absent due to Covid, adding that hospital admissions seem to have “perhaps plateaued in London or there may be a second peak after the new year now, but it’s rising across the rest of Britain”.
Meanwhile, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said at least “half a dozen” NHS hospitals have declared a critical incident as they try to respond to Covid.
Morecambe Bay NHS Trust and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust were among those declaring critical incidents.
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, the public health director for Lancashire County Council, told Today: “Lancashire is beginning to experience what London did at the beginning of last month and, of course, London is better resourced and the infrastructures are well organised compared to other regions, so we are bracing ourselves for a tsunami of Omicron cases in Lancashire.”
Hospitals in Greater Manchester have said they will pause some “non-urgent” surgery and appointments due to the “rising impact” of Covid-19 and staffing shortages.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority said hospitals had taken the “difficult decision” as a temporary measure but it would not affect cancer treatment, cardiac surgery, vascular surgery or transplants.