Boris Johnson has admitted the UK National Healt Service is coming under major pressure because of the Omicron coronavirus variant, but said England would stick with existing Covid-19 restrictions for now.
The British prime minister is due to take a decision on Wednesday about whether to tighten curbs amid opposition from some of his ministers and Conservative MPs, and he said on Monday that Omicron was “plainly milder” than previous variants.
His comments came as ministers faced more criticism for failing to provide enough rapid Covid tests for people to use at home over the Christmas holiday period. The wholesaler contracted by the government to distribute these lateral flow tests to pharmacies in England, Alliance Healthcare, closed on Christmas Day and only resumed deliveries on December 29th.
The government on Monday reported 157,758 coronavirus cases in England and Scotland in the latest 24 hour period, meaning almost 1.2 million people have tested positive for Covid-19 over the past seven days, up 50 per cent compared with the previous week. But scientists warn that trends over the Christmas period are less reliable than usual because of incomplete reporting during the festive season.
The number of patients in UK hospitals with Covid-19 increased by almost 50 per cent in the week to December 29th, reaching nearly 12,000, as the NHS also contends with significant staff shortages as workers catch Omicron.
Mr Johnson said: “I think we’ve got to recognise that the pressure on our NHS, on our hospitals, is going to be considerable in the course of the next couple of weeks, and maybe more.”
But he added Omicron “does seem pretty conclusively to be less severe than Delta or Alpha”.
He said the government would continue to keep relevant data under review, and would stick with its so-called plan B restrictions for England for the time being, which include wearing masks in public places and work from home guidance.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said there was "nothing in the data" to suggest the need for new measures in England in the coming weeks.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said data from London, the centre of the Omicron outbreak, was encouraging because daily growth in the number of people being admitted with Covid-19 was slowing.
He added the other “positive news” was that “hospitals are still not seeing large numbers of seriously ill older people. CEOs across the country are echoing London colleagues in pointing to the fact that care-home Omicron outbreaks are not translating into hospital admissions.
“The issue for the NHS is not the size of [the] very ill older people [with] Covid, but the number of staff absences and general admissions with Covid on top of existing pressures,” said Mr Hopson.
Hospitals in Lincolnshire have declared a major incident because of “unprecedented” staff shortages related to coronavirus, and Mr Hopson said a “number of trusts have declared internal critical incidents over the last few days”.
United Lincolnshire Hospitals, which runs four sites in the county, said it was taking “additional steps to maintain services” owing to significant staffing issues.
Meanwhile, Labour seized on the disclosure that Alliance Healthcare, the only wholesaler contracted by the government to distribute lateral flow tests to pharmacies in England, had shut for four days over the Christmas period.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: "The government has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to England's supply of Covid tests."
Alliance said it had, on December 24th, distributed more than two million lateral flow tests to support community pharmacies that remained open over the Christmas bank holiday.– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022