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Restrictions on freedom “must be an absolute last resort”, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said, as a health boss warned that the prevalence of the Omicron coronavirus variant could prompt hospital managers to close wards to visitors.
Mr Javid and NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor agreed that the record-breaking Omicron wave of infection will “test the limits of finite NHS capacity even more than a typical winter”, with reports suggesting a requirement to work from home in England could be in place for most of January.
And Mr Taylor said some hospitals could be forced to exclude visitors as part of the “difficult choices” made to stymie the spread of Omicron on wards.
It came as figures showed that hospital admissions in England have risen to their highest level since January 2021, while the number of NHS hospital staff absent due to the virus nearly doubled in a month.
A further 189,846 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in the UK on Friday, another new daily record, as the British Medical Association called for further public health measures “urgently to prevent the health service being completely overwhelmed”.
And Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University statistician and Government adviser, said the actual number of daily cases could be closer to half a million.
Mr Javid, writing in the Daily Mail, said England had “welcomed in 2022 with some of the least restrictive measures in Europe”, with the UK Government at odds with the devolved nations in choosing to keep nightclubs open and to allow hospitality to operate without further measures for new year celebrations.
“Curbs on our freedom must be an absolute last resort and the British people rightly expect us to do everything in our power to avert them,” the Health Secretary continued.
“Since I came into this role six months ago, I’ve also been acutely conscious of the enormous health, social and economic costs of lockdowns.
“So I’ve been determined that we must give ourselves the best chance of living alongside the virus and avoiding strict measures in the future.”
The Daily Telegraph reported that work from home guidance, which is in place as part of England’s Plan B measures that also include widespread mask-wearing in public places and mandatory Covid passes for large events – could be set to roll on for another three weeks.
The most recent restrictions are set to expire six weeks after implementation, with a review after three weeks, which is expected on or close to Tuesday January 4.
But the newspaper said the review, likely to be timed for when MPs return to Westminster on Wednesday, could see the work from home guidance remain in place into the latter half of the month.
Mr Taylor, who heads up the body which represents NHS trusts, said the pressures hospitals continue to face will have an impact on decisions.
He told BBC Breakfast: “Hospital managers have to make very difficult choices and excluding visitors is one of those very difficult choices.
“It’s not something that anybody wants to do, it’s a last resort.
“But, when you’re facing the kind of pressures the health service is going to be under for the next few weeks, this is the kind of thing managers have to do.”
He added: “I understand how much people want to return to normal and I’m confident that, as this year progresses, we will be able to do that, and we all hope that 2022 is the year in which coronavirus just becomes an illness that we live with, not an illness that dominates our lives.
“But you can have the optimism but still recognise the next few weeks are going to be very tough and we need to do whatever is necessary to get us through these next few weeks.”
It came as a number of high-profile advisers on the front line of the UK’s Covid response were recognised in the New Year Honours list, including England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, deputy CMO Jonathan Van-Tam, and Wales’ and Scotland’s CMOs, Frank Atherton and Dr Gregor Smith, who have all been given knighthoods.