Boris Johnson has warned hospitals in England to brace themselves for “considerable” pressure in the next few weeks but ruled out new curbs to tackle an Omicron surge.
The prime minister said yesterday that he would instead rely on existing “plan B” measures — such as working from home guidance, vaccine passports and facemasks — to combat rising infections.
He urged those who had not received a booster vaccination to get one, to avoid future restrictions. Figures revealed that two million appointments for jabs this week had yet to be taken.
Johnson said that people should continue to take precautions and warned against complacency, dismissing suggestions that the pandemic was coming to an end as “absolute folly”.
Speaking in public for the first time this year, the prime minister used a visit to a vaccination centre in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, to warn that “there’s no question Omicron continues to surge through the country”.
He 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.” He added, though, that evidence showing Omicron was “plainly milder” than previous variants of the coronavirus meant no additional measures were necessary.
Ruling out further restrictions for now, he said: “I think the way forward for the country as a whole is to continue with the path that we’re on. We will keep everything under review. The mixture of things that we’re doing at the moment is, I think, the right one.”
The prime minister’s decision not to impose further restrictions despite record Covid-19 cases caused by the Omicron surge continues to put England at odds with the other home nations and much of the rest of Europe.
He said that Britain was well placed because it was further ahead in administering booster vaccinations. “I think that’s the difference between the UK and so much of the rest of Europe and perhaps the rest of the world,” he said.
Matthew Taylor, the NHS Confederation’s chief executive, said: “In many parts of the health service we are in a state of crisis. In the face of high levels of demand and staff absence some hospitals are having to declare a ‘critical incident’.” Johnson held talks with Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, and Professor Stephen Powis, its medical director, to draw up plans to redistribute healthcare staff to plug gaps.
The prime minister rejected calls to cut the ten-day self-isolation period for people with Covid-19, saying that such a measure would exacerbate the staffing crisis. This came as it was revealed last night that more than a million people were in self-isolation. The latest figures showed that 1,189,985 people had tested positive for Covid in the seven days leading up to yesterday. France has become the latest country to reduce the self-isolation period to five days, following the United States last week.
The head of Britain’s vaccination body has suggested that fourth Covid jabs should not be offered until there was further evidence about their effectiveness. Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said that in future “we need to target the vulnerable” rather than inoculating all people aged over 12. He told The Daily Telegraph: “We can’t vaccinate the planet every four to six months — it’s not sustainable or affordable”.