Boris Johnson has said that Plan B Covid regulations will continue to be enforced despite dramatically rising cases of the Omicron variant.
The Prime Minister’s announcement comes as the UK today recorded 218,724 new Covid cases, the first time a daily rate has exceeded 200,000. The Omicron variant now accounts for the majority of infections.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Johnson said that he will recommend to Cabinet tomorrow that people should still work from home where possible and must wear face masks in indoor public spaces and on public transport.
Further restrictions beyond Plan B measures will not be introduced for now.
The Prime Minister also announced that in an effort to prevent mass staff shortages in critical sectors, from 10 January more than 100,000 workers will be required to take daily Covid tests.
Industries affected include food processing, transport and border forces. Testing kits will be sent to organisations identified as crital.
“Together with the Plan B measures we introduced before Christmas, we have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again,” Johnson said.
“We can keep our schools and our businesses open, and we can find a way to live with this virus.
“But the weeks ahead are going to be challenging both here in the UK and across the world. There is no escaping the fact that some services will be disrupted by staff absences.
“If we all play our part in containing this virus, the disruptions we face can be far less severe than a national lockdown with all the devastation that would bring for the livelihoods and life chances of our children.”
While cases remain phenomenally high, Omicron is causing milder symptoms than former variants.
This is partly due to the effect of vaccines on the population. Over 34 million boosters have been administered including in England reaching more than 90% of over 70s and 86% of over 50s.
Compared to Delta, fewer people who contract Omicron are ending up in hospital, and those who are admitted are less likely to need ventilation or intensive care treatment. Currently admission numbers in England sit at 14,000, which is more than half that of the winter peak of 2021.
However, Omicron’s “extreme” infection rate has left experts fearing hospital admissions could yet rise further, especially as the effects of Christmas and New Year’s Eve gatherings start to take hold.
There is also serious concern over the impact of hospital staff shortages as huge sections of the NHS workforce are forced into isolation after having contracted or been exposed to the virus.
Despite Omicron being less severe, the knock-on impact of high infection numbers on wider NHS services is significant. The Guardian reported today that more than six NHS trusts in England have raised alarms about “internal critical incidents” relating to absences.
“Anyone who thinks our battle with Covid is over I’m afraid is profoundly wrong,” Johnson said during Tuesday’s press conference.
“This is a moment for the utmost caution,” he added.
Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation Matthew Taylor offered a similar warning in a blog post on Monday, where he wrote that “although the data around Omicron is looking positive” government and MPs should not rush to conclusions “before we have more certainty on what we’re dealing with”.
During Tuesday’s press conference the Prime Minister also disclosed that nine million members of the public are yet to come forward for a vaccine.
Up to 90% of patients currently in intensive care units have not received a booster jab, while 60% haven’t been vaccinated against Covid at all.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty told Tuesday’s press conference that conversations he has had with unvaccinated hospital patients have left him “rather saddened”.
“The great majority are not anti-vaxxers with weird views,” Whitty said.
Johnson implored eligible children and adults who have not yet been vaccinated to come forward do so immediately.
“People are dying needlessly because they haven’t had their jabs and they haven’t had a booster,” Johnson said.
“Exactly a year after the UK administered the first Astra Zeneca vaccine, the best way to contain this virus, help our NHS and keep our country open is to get boosted. So please, get boosted now.”
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