A record 2.3 million people in the UK had Covid-19 last week, the Office for National Statistics said.
The number is up from 1.4 million in the week to December 1. It is the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020.
The latest data from NHS England, published on Friday, show there were 2,370 Covid-19 hospital admissions in England on December 29, up 90 per cent week-on-week and the highest number since January 29.
However Chris Hopson, the head of NHS Providers, told The Times: “Although the numbers are going up and going up increasingly rapidly, the absence of large numbers of seriously ill older people is providing significant reassurance.”
Chief executive of NHS Confederation: Service facing “pretty tough” January
18:53 , Lizzie Edmonds
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said it was looking “pretty tough” for the health service over the coming weeks due to the rising number of Covid infections and hospital admissions.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “We must not underestimate the dangers we face over the next few weeks.
“The health service is always under a lot of pressure in winter, the middle of January is normally the very most busy time, and we are facing that time with this twin challenge of rising numbers of people coming into hospital, we’re getting on for a doubling of the number of people in hospital over the last two or three weeks, and also this very high rate of staff absence as a consequence of staff having the virus.
“So getting through the next few weeks is going to be pretty tough.”
Leading statistician says UK’s daily Covid-19 cases could be closer to 500,000
18:39 , Lizzie Edmonds
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a leading statistician, said the UK’s daily Covid-19 cases could be closer to 500,000.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) adviser told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “The case data that has just come out today shows around about 190,000 (new cases) but even that we should take with a pinch of salt because we don’t actually count reinfections… and testing is limited – people are finding it more difficult to find tests – so normally the number of cases are around half the number of infections, so we could be talking about half a million new infections per day.
“This is a huge unprecedented wave of infection and very daunting. It does look encouraging that London cases look like they may have peaked.”
Sajid Javid: Hospital admissions up due to record infection numbers
18:38 , Lizzie Edmonds
The Health Secretary said hospital admissions were “sadly” starting to rise as a result of record coronavirus infection numbers, “particularly in over 60s”.
Sajid Javid told broadcasters: “Fortunately we have some of the strongest defences this country has ever had during this pandemic, that includes our huge vaccination programme, our juggernaut of a testing system and also our world-leading antivirals programme.”
As he encouraged “more people to come forward” to join the 75% of eligible adults in England who have received a booster vaccination, he added: “We’ve got new data from UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) that suggests you are eight times more likely to be hospitalised if you are unvaccinated, so it can never be more important now to get vaccinated if you haven’t been so already.”
Asked about difficulties for NHS staff to get tested amid high absence rates in the health service, Mr Javid said work was being done to get them “easy access” to tests.
“It is right, of course, that they should be prioritised for testing and they are being prioritised.”
Irish health minister confirms country’s vaccination programme will be accelerated
18:15 , Lizzie Edmonds
Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccination programme is to be accelerated, health minister Stephen Donnelly has announced.
From Sunday all of those aged 16 and older who are eligible to receive a booster vaccine can access this service through HSE vaccination centres.
GPs and community pharmacies will also be providing this service on an appointment basis.
Mr Donnelly said: “In order to maintain momentum and build on the additional capacity put in place by the HSE over the last month within our vaccination centres and in primary care, I am delighted to announce that booster vaccination will now be available for all remaining age groups earlier than scheduled, beginning from Sunday next.
“This acceleration of the programmes means that many of our vaccination centres will now be administering primary, booster and paediatric doses of Covid-19 vaccine.
“The logistics of this undertaking are not to be underestimated.”
He added: “As incidence of disease continues to rise, it is vital that anyone eligible for a primary or booster dose vaccine receives that vaccine as soon as possible.”
Covid hospital admissions now at highest since January
17:29 , Lizzie Edmonds
Covid-19 hospital admissions in England have risen to their highest level since January while the number of NHS hospital staff absent due to virus nearly doubled in a month, new figures show.
The latest data from NHS England, published on Friday, show there were 2,370 Covid-19 hospital admissions in England on December 29, up 90% week-on-week and the highest number since January 29.
But it is still well below the second wave peak of 4,134 admissions on January 12, despite more record case numbers being reported.
Government figures show a further 189,846 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases had been recorded in the UK as of 9am on Friday, another new record for daily reported cases.
Top public health official urges Londoners to avoid large social gatherings this New Year’s Eve
16:32 , Josh Salisbury
A top public health official has urged Londoners to avoid mixing with lots of people “if you don’t have to” this New Year’s Eve.
Professor Kevin Fenton, London Regional Director of Public Health, said hospitalisations were increasing markedly in the capital and said people should consider restricting the amount of people they see during tonight’s festivities.
He said: “I urge Londoners to plan ahead and remember all the prevention measures we have become accustomed to.
“Consider prioritising your social activities to those that matter most to you and avoid mixing with lots of people if you don’t have to.
“Check your COVID status by taking a lateral flow test immediately before socialising, wear your mask when required to do so, meet outdoors or ventilate indoor spaces, and crucially, self-isolate if you feel at all unwell and take a PCR test.”
More than 12,000 people in hospital with Covid on New Year’s Eve
16:22 , Josh Salisbury
A total of 12,395 people were in hospital in England with Covid-19 as of 8am on December 31, according to figures from NHS England.
This is up 68% from a week earlier and is the highest number since February 25. During the second wave of coronavirus, the number peaked at 34,336 on January 18.
In London, 3,636 people were in hospital with Covid-19 on December 31, up 61% week-on-week and the highest number since February 12 last year.
The second-wave hospitalisation peak for London was 7,917 on January 18.
New Covid daily cases record set on New Year’s Eve
16:16 , Josh Salisbury
A further 189,846 confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported on New Year’s Eve, the Government said on Friday afternoon - yet again another daily record.
The Government said a further 203 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
Thursday’s previous record high of 189,213 cases included several days of delayed data from Northern Ireland.
Thursday also saw 332 deaths reported, but this included a backlog of fatality numbers that were not fully reported during the festive period.
Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have now been 174,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.
Some Covid patients treated primarily for other condition, says NHS Providers boss
16:05 , Josh Salisbury
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson has said that trust leaders were reporting that a lot of the patients being admitted were coming in with Covid, rather than primarily because of it.
He added: "The proportion varies across the country but, as you'd expect, is higher where Covid community infection rates are higher.
"But we'd urge caution because we don't yet have a detailed picture of what's happening with older, more vulnerable patients.
"A lot of the earlier infections have involved younger people, though mixing at Christmas and new year is likely to change that. We'll need to follow that very closely."
While around a third of Covid patients in English acute NHS trusts are being treated primarily for another condition, Mr Hopson said they still needed to be separated from others to prevent infection spreading.
He said: "That is really important in keeping patients and staff safe, but it also takes up extra resource and space at a time when the NHS is already operating beyond full stretch."
Risk of Omicron hospitalisation a third of Delta, says new Government analysis
15:08 , Josh Salisbury
The risk of being hospitalised with Omicron is just a third of that of Delta, a new Government analysis has found.
The UK Heath Security Agency analysed 528,176 Omicron cases and 573,012 Delta cases between 22 November and 26 December to assess the risk of hospitalisation in England.
In optimistic new stats, it found the risk of hospitalisation was significantly lower, and the risk of being admitted to A&E or being hospitalised from Omicron was just half that of Delta.
However, more analysis needs to be done on the severity of illness once in hospital, say scientists.
Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “This is more promising data which reinforces just how important vaccines are.
“They save lives and prevent serious illness. This analysis shows you are up to 8 times more likely to end up in hospital as a result of COVID-19 if you are unvaccinated.”
Nearly 4,000 booster doses given out yesterday
14:17 , Daniel Keane
A total of 397,554 booster and third doses of Covid-19 vaccine were reported in the UK on Thursday, new figures show.
More than 33.9 million booster and third doses have now been delivered in the UK, with 1.6 million in the past seven days.
Around 64% of all adults in the UK have now received a booster or third dose.
The figures have been published by the UK’s four health agencies.
Train timetables slashed amid pandemic staff shortages
13:56 , Daniel Keane
Hundreds of daily trains are being removed from timetables in an attempt to improve reliability following weeks of short notice cancellations.
At least eight operators have either already reduced frequencies on many routes or will do so in the coming days in response to pandemic-related staff shortages.
Passengers travelling on New Year’s Eve also face major disruption due to industrial action.
In recent weeks rail firms across Britain have axed trains at short notice due to staff self-isolating or unwell.
Many have responded by releasing condensed timetables in a bid to create more certainty about which services they can and cannot operate.
Rail minister Wendy Morton said: “While it is for operators to manage timetables, I continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Covid treatment approved by MHRA
13:32 , Daniel Keane
A Covid-19 treatment called Paxlovid has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the UK Government has announced.
The decision comes after the regulator found the drug was safe and effective at reducing the risks of being admitted to hospital and death in people with mild to moderate coronavirus infection, who are at an increased risk of developing severe disease.
Developed by Pfizer, Paxlovid is an antiviral medicine with a combination of active ingredients, PF-07321332 and ritonavir, that works by inhibiting a protease required for virus replication.
This prevents it from multiplying, keeping virus levels low and helping the body to overcome the viral infection.
The two active substances of Paxlovid come as separate tablets that are packaged together and taken together, twice a day by mouth for five days.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “The UK has been a world leader at finding and rolling out Covid-19 treatments to patients. This is further proved by the MHRA being one of the first in the world to approve this life-saving antiviral.”
Third of Covid patients in England NHS acute trusts ‘being treated primarily for another condition'
13:13 , Josh Salisbury
A third of Covid patients in NHS acute trusts in England are being treated for another condition primarily, new data reveals.
Of the 8,321 patients with coronavirus on December 28, 67% were being treated primarily for Covid-19, and the remaining 33 per cent primarily for another condition.
This is down from 71% a week earlier and 74% at the start of December.
The number being treated primarily for Covid-19 rose from 4,432 on December 21 to 5,578 on December 28 (a jump of 26%), while those with Covid-19 but who were being treated primarily for something else rose from 1,813 to 2,743 (a jump of 51%).
Record 2.3 million Brits test positive for Covid in a week
12:34 , Josh Salisbury
An estimated 2.3 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending December 2 - the highest on record.
This was up from 1.4 million in the week to December 16, making it the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020, the Office for National Statistics said.
The ONS said the highest infection levels were seen in London, where an estimated one in 15 people had Covid during that week.
Around one in 25 had coronavirus in that week in England, said the statistics body.
COVID-19 infections compatible with the Omicron variant continued to increase rapidly across all four regions of the UK, it added, with Omicron now the most common variant in England and Scotland.
Government should call emergency meeting over NHS staff absences, say Lib Dems
11:56 , Josh Salisbury
The Government should call an emergency Covid Cobra meeting over rising NHS staff absences, the Lib Dems have said.
The number of NHS hospital staff in England absent due to Covid-19 has nearly doubled since the start of the month, new figures show, to 24,632 as of Boxing Day.
The party’s health spokeswoman, Daisy Cooper, said the figures showed “hospital and ambulance services are stretched to breaking point under the weight of devastating Covid staff absences”.
She called on the Prime Minister to call a Cobra meeting “without delay” because “our NHS is in desperate need of support”.
She added: "It really is now or never for the Government to get a handle on a crisis that is quickly spiralling beyond their control.”
UK regulator approves new ‘life-saving’ anti-Covid drug
11:36 , Josh Salisbury
The UK has approved a new Covid treatment which has been found to reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death for vulnerable people from the virus.
The treatment, called Paxlovid, can reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death by up to 89% in high-risk adults with symptomatic COVID-19 infection, a clinical trial found.
This was compared to a placebo group, when the treatment was started within three days of symptoms.
Because Paxlovid can be taken by mouth, it means the treatment can be started at home rather than in hospital.
“I hope the announcement today gives reassurance to those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, for whom this treatment has been approved,” said Dr June Raine, chief executive of the regulator, the MHRA.
“For these individuals, this treatment could be life-saving.” The UK had ordered 2.5 million courses of the drug ahead of it receiving approval.
Hundreds of trains taken off timetables in bid to improve Covid service
10:40 , Josh Salisbury
Hundreds of trains are being removed from timetables in a bid to improve reliability after many cancellations of Covid staff shortages.
At least eight operators have already reduced their frequency on many routes or plan to do so as Covid isolation rules hit workforces.
It comes as the major RMT union said it was going ahead with a strike on New Year’s Eve affecting CrossCountry services, causing the majority of its services to be cancelled.
A spokesman for industry body the Rail Delivery Group said operators are "working hard to provide a reliable train service" amid reduced staff numbers.
He continued: "Some rail companies are introducing amended timetables owing to much less demand for train services.”
It comes after Southern announced that it would be running no services in or out of London Victoria for two weeks until January 10 over staff absences.
More than 4,500 NHS staff absent from London hospitals over Covid
09:53 , Josh Salisbury
A total of 4,580 NHS staff at hospital trusts in London were absent for Covid-19 reasons on December 26, according to the latest figures.
This is up 18% on the previous week (3,874) and nearly four times the number at the start of the month (1,174), according to new stats from NHS England
The number reached as high as 5,994 on December 23.
The total includes staff who were ill with coronavirus or who were having to self-isolate.
Across England as a whole, 24,632 NHS staff at hospital trusts were absent due to Covid-19 reasons on December 26, up 31% from 18,829 a week earlier and nearly double the number at the start of the month (12,508).
Government may need more restrictions at pace, says NHS Providers CEO
09:46 , Josh Salisbury
The head of NHS Providers has warned that more restrictions may be needed at pace if the evidence requires it.
Chris Hopson was quoted in the Times newspaper on Friday as saying that NHS Trusts understand why no new restrictions are coming into force in England, under the headline ‘No need for more Covid curbs, say NHS chiefs’.
But Mr Hopson struck a more cautious tone on BBC Radio 4, saying the NHS doesn’t know if a surge will come.
“I think we are in exactly the same place we’ve been for the past fortnight, which is the Government needs to be ready to introduce tighter restrictions at real speed should they be needed,” he said.
"And just to make the point that that is somewhat different to a headline that states NHS leaders think there is no need for more curbs - they may be needed at pace if the evidence warrants it.”
Because there is a delay between restrictions having an effect on hospitalisations, he added that “the pattern of hospital admissions for the next fortnight has already been set."
South Africa believes it has passed fourth wave nationally
09:14 , Josh Salisbury
South Africa may have passed the peak of the fourth wave, its government said, as it lifted a midnight curfew with immediate effect on Thursday.
A government statement said its midnight to 4am curfew could be lifted based on the trajectory of the pandemic, healthcare capacity and vaccination levels.
"All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level," a statement from the special cabinet meeting held earlier on Thursday said.
The cabinet statement added: “While the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, there has been lower rates of hospitalisation than in previous waves.”
NHS could soon reach tipping point over Omicron, says Openshaw
09:01 , Josh Salisbury
More from Professor Peter Openshaw, who has told BBC Breakfast he believes the NHS could be overwhelmed soon by Omicron.
He said: “I think we haven’t quite reached the threshold that was set by Government in terms of the NHS being overwhelmed, but it looks like that will be reached quite quickly.
“What I’m very concerned about is our NHS staff, my dear colleagues who have worked so, so hard all through the repeated waves of this infection.
“How are they going to cope?”
He added that he was also concerned about the “long-term consequences of this infection which may take years to emerge”.
Just ‘one whiff of infected breath’ is enough to catch Omicron - scientist
08:37 , Josh Salisbury
A leading scientist has said you only need to be exposed to "a whiff of infected breath" to catch Omicron.
Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), told BBC Breakfast: "Omicron is so infectious.
"We're lucky really that it wasn't this infectious when it first moved into human-to-human transmission.
"We've had several iterations of this virus going through different stages of its evolution.
"It has ended up being so infectious that it almost needs just a whiff of infected breath and you could get infected.
"We're in a relatively good position in countries like the UK but I think you have to remember that in many parts of the world the vaccination rates are only about 5%, and they're being exposed to this very infectious virus with very little protection."
'More lateral flow tests in stock today’
07:59 , Josh Salisbury
National Pharmacy Association chairman Andrew Lane said more lateral flow tests are being distributed to pharmacies today ahead of New Year’s Eve gatherings but supply is "still very patchy”.
He said he expected the test packs to be picked up "within the first few hours" of them being delivered, and that pharmacy staff were being abused by patients not being able to find a test.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Lane said: "It is still very patchy though, so I will say that not every pharmacy today will have a box but most pharmacies in the country will be having a box so we just ask the public to persevere, and also treat us with respect.
"We have had a lot of abuse over the last couple of weeks when the tests haven't been there, but teams are doing their very best to help the public with this."
A box contains around 54 tests, and pharmacies are reporting that they are being snapped up within hours of being delivered, he added.
NHS bosses ‘understand why there are no new restrictions’ says top health service figure
07:55 , Josh Salisbury
A top NHS boss has said Trusts understand why there is no new curbs in England for New Year’s, saying that serious illness has not risen in the elderly.
Chris Hopson, CEO of NHS Providers, told the Times that while the situation could change in the New Year, NHS officials had been significantly reassured by “the absence of large numbers of seriously ill older people”.
“Trust CEOs know that the government has a high threshold to cross before it will introduce extra restrictions and can see why, in the absence of that surge of severely ill older people, that threshold hasn’t been crossed yet,” he said.
Boris Johnson is set to decide next week on whether fresh rules on needed for England, which could include restrictions on socialising indoors in a bid to curb the Omicron wave.
‘Risky’ not have New Year’s Eve restrictions - Doctor
07:47 , Josh Salisbury
Boris Johnson's decision not to place restrictions on New Year's Eve gatherings in England is "quite risky" given the high rates of Covid-19 infections, a top doctor has said.
"It is quite risky given the fact we're now approaching 200,000 cases per day - there is a high rate of infection in the community," Dr Azeem Majeed, head of primary care and public health at Imperial College London told Times Radio.
"So if you attend an event in a crowded indoor venue, the chances are that someone there will have been infected, and they may not know that and that person could infect others.”
He added that it was going to be “very difficult” to find staff to man the new Nightingale ‘hubs’ being established for Covid patients.
“Hopefully those won’t be needed, but if we do need those extra beds it will be a struggle to find the staff to deal with those patients,” he said.
“I’m not quite sure where those staff will come from given the fact hospitals are struggling now with their current workload.”
07:42 , Josh Salisbury
Good morning and welcome to the Evening Standard’s live coverage of the latest coronavirus developments on the last day of the year. Some of the top stories this morning are:
- Covid patient numbers have soared to more than 11,800 in the UK, as yesterday saw another record high of 189,213.
- The PM is expected to say that vaccinations mean we are in an ‘incomparably better’ position entering 2022 in a New Year’s message, while the government believes it has reached its target of offering a booster to all adults
- France has announced that u-turn on its ban on Brits travelling through the country to return to homes in Europe.