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Boris Johnson told MPs he had been right to resist bringing in stricter Covid measures before Christmas, after the Cabinet agreed to keep the existing domestic restrictions in place, while easing travel testing rules.
But hospital admissions continued to rise, along with case rates, as staffing shortages hit the NHS.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Wednesday afternoon that more than 20 trusts had now declared a critical incident, where priority services may be under threat, but he insisted this was “not a good indicator” of the pressures the health service was under.
The number of people in hospital with coronavirus is at its highest since February last year.
And Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents health trusts, said hospitals were being hit with three issues at once – the rising numbers of hospitalisations, staffing, and non-Covid issues which existed before the pandemic.
He said the NHS was “stretched like never before”.
In England, around one in 15 people in private households had Covid-19, according to ONS (Office for National Statistics) estimates – a level rising to one in 10 in London.
A further 194,747 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases had been recorded in the UK as of 9am on Wednesday, while 334 more deaths were recorded – although this figure included a backlog of hospital data from England since January 1.
Government figures also showed that a total of 17,276 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of January 4, up 58% week-on-week – although far below the peak of almost 40,000 in January 2021.
An estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending December 31, up from 2.3 million in the week to December 23 and the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020, the ONS said.
In the Commons, Mr Johnson said hospital admissions were “doubling around every nine days” and “we’re experiencing the fastest growth in Covid cases we’ve ever known”.
Cases were doubling every week among the over-60s, he added.
But he said the Plan B measures – including wider use of face masks and guidance to work from home – were “helping to take the edge off the Omicron wave”, slowing the spread, easing pressure on the NHS and buying time for the booster campaign to take effect.
The restrictions will be reviewed again before they are scheduled to expire on January 26 and would require a vote in the Commons to be extended beyond that date, something that could see the Prime Minister once again face a major backbench Tory revolt.
Mr Johnson also confirmed plans being implemented across the UK to end the requirement for confirmatory PCR tests for asymptomatic people who tested positive using a lateral flow device (LFD).
The changes in testing procedures are aimed at freeing up laboratory capacity for PCR tests, with the requirement for confirmatory tests suspended in asymptomatic people until the current high levels of infections subside.
The change was being introduced in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, Scotland and Wales on Thursday and in England from January 11.
People who have Covid-19 symptoms should still get a PCR test, the UK Health Security Agency said.
The #COVID19 Dashboard has been updated: https://t.co/XhspoyTG79
On 5 January 194,747 new cases and 334 deaths in 28 days of a positive test were reported in the UK.
Our data includes the number of people receiving a first, second and booster dose of the #vaccine pic.twitter.com/cmkPENiFy4
— UK Health Security Agency (@UKHSA) January 5, 2022
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s not a sensible use of the PCR capacity to require sort of a confirmatory test for when people are getting LFDs.
“When prevalence is extremely high as it is currently, LFDs, while already accurate, become extremely accurate given the specificity.”
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory panel, backed the move, saying a confirmatory PCR “not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere”.
Exemptions to the new rules include people eligible for the £500 test and trace support payment, who will still require a confirmatory PCR to access the help.
PCRs will also be required for people participating in research and surveillance programmes and those at risk of becoming seriously ill, who have been identified as potentially eligible for new treatments.
Ministers also approved changes to the travel regime for England, with the requirement for pre-departure tests scrapped from 4am on Friday.
Mr Johnson also said the requirement to self-isolate on arrival until receipt of a negative PCR test was being scrapped, returning instead to the system in place in October last year, where travellers needed to take a lateral flow test no later than the end of day two after arriving in England, with a PCR test if they were positive.
The Omicron-driven surge in coronavirus cases and the knock-on effect of staff absences is also causing major problems in public services.
Today First Minister @NicolaSturgeon announced changes to the self-isolation rules in Scotland.
Watch the FM's update ⬇️
Learn more about the changes and what you need to do ➡️ https://t.co/PX9rnhbYF4 pic.twitter.com/iEqK73l9w3
— Scottish Government (@scotgov) January 5, 2022
The Fire Brigades Union said that almost a third of London’s fire engines had been out of action during the last week, while almost 10% of operational firefighters in the capital had either tested positive or were self-isolating.
While the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) was still asking patients suffering from suspected strokes or heart attacks to get relatives to drive them to hospital following pressures on staff due to coronavirus and new year demand.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cut the self-isolation period to seven days, provided people had two negative lateral flow tests, broadly in line with the measures in place in England.
But restrictions on large gatherings and hospitality and leisure businesses would remain until at least January 17 in Scotland, she said.