Boris Johnson has backed sticking with Plan B measures as he hopes to “ride out” the massive wave of Omicron cases without lockdown restrictions despite warnings the NHS is under significant pressure.
The Prime Minister said anyone who believes the battle against the disease is over is “profoundly wrong” as he confirmed he would advocate to his Cabinet the need to stick with work-from-home guidance, mask-wearing and the use of Covid health passes.
With daily lab-confirmed coronavirus cases in England exceeding 200,000 for the first time, Mr Johnson said now is the time for the “utmost caution” but argued the booster rollout has given substantial protection to the nation.
READ MORE: 100,000 critical workers to take daily tests to keep country running
The Prime Minister acknowledged the weeks ahead are going to be “challenging” and said “some services will be disrupted by staff absences” as he pledged to “fortify” the NHS to withstand the pressures and protect supply chains.
Under the measures, he said 100,000 “critical workers” will get lateral flow tests on every working day starting on Monday, January 10.
Here are 15 key points from today’s Downing Street briefing.
Pandemic not over
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Boris Johnson said the latest record Covid case figures showed that those who believed the pandemic to be over were “profoundly wrong”.
He said: “Our United Kingdom is in the midst of the fastest growth in Covid cases that we’ve ever known.
“Previous waves of the pandemic didn’t have a single day with more than 100,000 new cases reported, one day last week we had 200,000 people test positive.
“And the latest figure today is another 218,000, though that includes some delayed reports.
“So anyone who thinks our battle with Covid is over, I’m afraid is profoundly wrong.
“This is a moment for the utmost caution.”
Sticking with Plan B
The Prime Minister said, despite the high number of coronavirus cases being recorded in the UK, there was a “chance” extra restrictions would not be needed in England.
He explained: “But our position today differs from previous waves in two crucial respects.
“First, we now know that Omicron is milder than previous variants, so while hospital admissions are rising quickly, with over 15,000 Covid patients now in hospital in England alone, this is not yet, thankfully, translating into the same numbers needing intensive care that we saw in previous waves.
“Second, thanks to the fantastic national effort to get Britain boosted, we now have a substantial level of protection, higher than any of our European neighbours, with over 34 million boosters administered, including in England reaching more than 90% of the over 70s and 86% of the over 50s.
“And so, together with the Plan B measures that we introduced before Christmas, we have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again.
“We can keep our schools and our businesses open and we can find a way to live with this virus.”
Will further measures be needed?
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The question of whether further Omicron controls could be needed in England will depend on if the variant “peaks how quickly it blows through”, Mr Johnson has said.
The PM, asked about the likelihood of restrictions, replied: “We will monitor everything very closely – we clearly can’t rule anything out.
“What we are trying to do is take a balanced approach where we rely on people to implement Plan B carefully and to behave carefully with other people – and people are doing that, you can tell people are really responding to this and they are doing their absolute best, despite the extreme transmissibility of Omicron. What we’re also doing is massively accelerating the booster rollout and it has gone incredibly fast.
“I think, at the moment, it depends. To be absolutely frank with you, it depends on whether the virus will behave in the way it perhaps has behaved in South Africa, whether it peaks, how quickly it blows through.
“But if you ask me to guess, I would say we have a good chance of getting through the Omicron wave without the need for further restrictions, and without the need certainly for a lockdown.
“And the reason we are in that position, unlike many other countries in the world, certainly like many other countries in Europe, is that we just have such a high level now of booster protection, but that is no reason for everybody not to get more.”
Daily tests for 100,000 critical workers
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Mr Johnson said the Government has identified 100,000 critical workers who will be offered daily lateral flow tests to help keep essential services open.
He told the news conference staff working in areas such as food processing, transport and the Border Force would be sent test kits for every working day from January 10.
“As the NHS moves to a war footing I will be recommending to Cabinet tomorrow we continue with Plan B because the public have responded and changed their behaviour buying valuable time to get boosters in arms,” he said.
‘Extraordinarily high levels of infection at the moment’
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said there was “extraordinarily high levels of infection at the moment” in the UK, and that hospital pressures will depend on how Omicron impacts on the older generation.
He said: “What we don’t know, and these are two things we don’t know that are key, exactly when the peak is going to occur or how big the peak is going to be.
“That is one thing that is going to determine how much disease comes on in terms of hospitalisation. And the second really important thing is that this has largely been an infection among younger people up until now, and it is moving up the age range now.
“And as it moves up the age range, you would expect to see more hospitalisations and we don’t know for sure how that’s going to manifest and what degree of disease.
“So I think with the degree of infection that we have got, we are going to see more hospitalisation for sure – 15,000 per day at the moment. That I expect to increase, and that of course will be associated with increased pressure and ultimately with some fatalities as well.
“I think what we now need to look for is when this peaks and starts to come down.”
Booster doses provide 88% of “overall protection against being hospitalised”, England’s chief medical officer has said.
Professor Sir Chris Whitty said: “We now have confidence that the booster provides around 88% overall protection against being hospitalised and it is likely to be even greater than that for severe disease and mortality.”
Sir Chris also urged anyone how had not yet received a booster to come forward.
He said: “Anybody who has not been boosted who is eligible really should do so. I think the idea that this is a mild disease, as opposed to less likely to be hospitalised, is easily demonstrated to be incorrect based on these data.”
He was referring to the high numbers of older people still being sent to hospital, because of the Omicron variant’s transmissibility.
Covid jabs likely to become ‘annual’ thing
Sir Patrick Vallance said “there will be a change over time” as the pandemic moves into an endemic, adding that jabs will likely eventually become an “annual” thing.
He said he did not believe booster jabs will be needed every few months moving forward.
Unvaccinated people dying ‘needlessly’ – PM
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Mr Johnson has said people are dying “needlessly” because they have not been properly vaccinated against Covid-19.
“There are still almost nine million people eligible, who haven’t had their booster,” he told the press conference.
“It’s absolutely heart-breaking that as many as 90% of those in intensive care with Covid have not had their booster, and over 60% of those in intensive care, who have Covid, have not had any vaccination at all.
“People are dying needlessly because they haven’t had their jabs, they haven’t had that booster.”
2m vaccine slots this week ‘absolutely crazy’
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Mr Johnson has said it is “absolutely crazy” that people are ending up in intensive care with Covid because they have not been vaccinated.
“How absolutely crazy it is, absolutely crazy, that there are two million slots this week for people to get vaccinated and yet the majority of people in ICU for Covid are not vaccinated – 61%,” he told a Downing Street news conference.
“It is sad but it is also a huge opportunity for us to correct it.”
Professor Sir Chris Whitty said he was “saddened” by the numbers of unvaccinated people in intensive care.
“The great majority of them are not anti-vaxxers in ordinary sense with some really weird ideas,” he said.
He said that people wanted to know if disease important enough to warrant vaccination and whether the vaccines were effective. At the same time he said there was “misinformation” on the internet “a lot of it deliberately placed” about the potential side effects of the jabs.
“In so far as I am frustrated it is simply people deliberately trying to scare away fellow citizens from something that is potentially going to be life-saving for them,” he said.
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Sir Chris Whitty warned that lower rates of people being admitted to hospital did not mean there were not “significant numbers” of people in hospital with Covid.
He said: “Lower does not mean there are not hospitalisations, there are significant numbers.
“Just to give some kind of feel for this, at the moment there are just over 15,000 people in hospital in England, the data for the UK is slightly later in time.
“If we went back to mid-December when we were still with the Delta wave the numbers were between 6,000 and 6,500. A very substantial increase.
“People are not admitted to hospital in winter unless they have a clear need for hospitalisation.”
The CMO added the data was “relatively close to the initial peak” of hospital admissions in last January, of 18,000 people.
‘Very substantial pressure over the next couple of weeks’
Sir Chris Whitty also warned hospitals across the country were likely to face “very substantial pressure over the next couple of weeks”.
“I don’t think we think that the ICU pressure is going to be like it was in previous waves but there is very substantial pressure on the emergency service part – ambulances, A&Es,” he told a Downing Street press conference.
“My colleagues in the NHS who are on the emergency side are having an extremely difficult time because they have a simultaneous wave of people coming in with Covid on top of the usual winter pressures, and you’ve got a wave of people who are off sick because they have got Covid or indeed for other reasons, but Covid is very substantially contributing to that.
“As Patrick (Vallance) said, we would expect the peak in younger people to come before the peak in older people so it may well be that the workforce problems start to decrease before we start to see any decrease in the number of people coming into hospital. Indeed, they could still very well be going up for some time.”
Sir Chris said that there was not likely to be a “single threshold” for when further action might be needed to be taken by the NHS but more “little by little” that things are rolled back, firstly in terms of routine procedures and then to more urgent but not emergency services.
“It will be patchy in different areas of the country, it will be patchy at different points along the epidemic and it won’t reach a threshold but there will certainly be some hospitals in some areas of the country which will come under very substantial pressure over the next couple of weeks,” he added.
Unvaccinated people are concerned about three things
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Asked about whether he is frustrated by unvaccinated people taking up hospital beds, Sir Chris Whitty says he is saddened.
The great majority of them are not anti-vaxxers with weird ideas, he said.
He said people want to know three things – is the disease serious enough to need a vaccine, do the vaccines work and whether there are side effects.
Sir Chris Whitty said that last point is where a lot of the misinformation on the internet is placed and it is a problem.
He said that it is up to health professionals not to get frustrated but to go through peoples questions properly and see which are fair and which are untrue but have been put into the public domain deliberately to scare people.
The final thing people want is convenience, he says, and the booster programme has allowed a massive expansion of capacity, he says.
Vaccine ‘significantly protects’ every age group
Sir Chris Whitty said people in every age band are “significantly protected by vaccination”.
Speaking at the press briefing in Downing Street, Sir Chris said: “Every age band, being vaccinated, whether it’s previous variants and is likely to be true for this variant, every age band people are significantly protected by vaccination.
“And it is really critical whatever age people are, that they do get vaccinated.”
Sir Chris added that in terms of reducing hospitalisations, “we are now confident that boosting provides very significant protection and that the one or two vaccines provide some level of protection”.
“No easy answer to a problem like Omicron”
Mr Johnson said there is “no easy answer to a problem like Omicron” and “there is no easy lockdown”.
He said: “There’s no easy restriction on people’s lives or livelihoods. And the best thing I think we can do now is to continue to follow the guidance, protect our NHS in the way that that we are, increase the support that we’re giving to the NHS and as you know, you’ve heard from what I said earlier on, we’re increasing the numbers of staff, we have got a record number of people working in the NHS now than at any time in the past.”
Mr Johnson added that the Government will continue to “watch what happens very closely”, but noted: “We think that this is the right approach to take. It’s a balanced approach. It has to balance a lot of considerations.
“It has to balance the the effect on people’s lives and livelihoods of lockdowns, which are painful, which take away people’s life chances and which do a great deal of social damage, damage to people’s mental health as well as damage to the economy.
“So it’s a difficult balance to strike. But that is that is where we are.”
Lateral flow tests
Sir Chris Whitty said lateral flow tests are a “very good guide actually to whether someone is at that moment infectious”.
When asked about the shortening of the self-isolation regime, Sir Chris said: “The reason that we feel it is a useful tool to allow on day six and day seven, someone is isolated because they know they’ve got Covid to day five and then they have a negative test on day six and a negative test on day seven, we have confidence they’re much less likely to be in any way infectious to other people if they then leave isolation than if they had not done those tests.
“So that’s the reason why adding those tests on allowed ministers to decide to move from 10 days isolation down to seven but the last two you do the lateral tests because they’re very predictive of how infectious someone is… obviously if they’re still positive, then they do need to stay in isolation until it goes negative.”
On PCR tests, Sir Chris added: “The PCR tests which are the other way of testing, they can remain positive for a long time after someone has had an infection, including beyond the point where they are infectious.
“So the reason that we find the PCR is extremely good because they’re very sensitive and they’re extremely because they tell you which type of variants of Covid, it has got many advantages, but the lateral flows are really good at helping to determine whether someone is infectious at that point to other people.”
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