UK must 'live alongside' Covid and restrictions must be ‘last resort’, health secretary says

ITV News visited a pharmacy continuing to give out booster jabs on New Year's Day as Sajid Javid said the UK must 'live alongside' Covid, Correspondent Neil Connery reports

The UK must "live alongside" Covid-19 and any new coronavirus restrictions "must be an absolute last resort," the health secretary has said.

Sajid Javid said the record-breaking Omicron wave of infection will “test the limits of finite NHS capacity even more than a typical winter” as reports suggested a work from home order in England could be in place for most of January to slow the spread of the highly transmissible variant.Government figures show a further 189,846 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in the 24 hours to 9am on Friday, the fourth day in a row the UK broke its own record.

But a leading statistician said the actual number of daily cases could be closer to half-a-million, with the UK going into the new year in the midst of an “unprecedented wave” of infections.

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Mr Javid, writing in the Daily Mail, said England had “welcomed in 2022 with some of the least restrictive measures in Europe”, with the UK government at odds with the devolved nations in choosing to keep nightclubs open and to allow hospitality to operate without further measures for new year celebrations.

“Curbs on our freedom must be an absolute last resort and the British people rightly expect us to do everything in our power to avert them,” the health secretary wrote.

“Since I came into this role six months ago, I’ve also been acutely conscious of the enormous health, social and economic costs of lockdowns.

“So I’ve been determined that we must give ourselves the best chance of living alongside the virus and avoiding strict measures in the future.”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he was opposed to any more lockdowns unless absolutely necessary. Credit: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA

The Cabinet minister said the time lag between infections and hospital admissions meant it was “inevitable that we will still see a big increase” in Covid patients over the next month as he warned that, as the coronavirus crisis entered its third year, the pandemic is “still far from over”.

Responding to Mr Javid's piece, NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said: "We've been very clear at every point over the last two or three weeks, which is the government should be ready to introduce further restrictions as and when they are needed and when the evidence shows they are needed.

"And they should be ready to do that at pace."

He explained that the NHS is under pressure due to a combination of things going on, rising hospitalisations, elective surgeries that can't wait any longer, the booster campaign and staff absences from Covid infections.

Chris Hopson, NHS Providers chief executive, says the government must have restrictions ready to be rolled out 'at pace' if needed

Explaining the setting up of the Nightingale "surge hubs", said: "We're creating the new surge hubs because we know that we could be on the end of a significant number of people coming in for hospital treatment.

"What we need to do is we'll surge capacity like we did last January, but we think we might need super surge capacity which is why those eight hubs and probably more will be created.

"The issue and the challenge will be staffing them and the assumption will be if we are using them, we will be in an emergency and we would therefore need to use an emergency staffing model."

Hospital admissions in England stand at their highest since last January, with 2,370 Covid-19 patients taken in on December 29 – up 90% week-on-week.

The Daily Telegraph reported that work from home guidance, which is in place as part of England’s Plan B measures – and also includes widespread mask wearing in public places and mandatory Covid passes for large events – could be set to roll on for another three weeks.

The restrictions brought in last month are set to expire six weeks after implementation, with a review after three weeks, which is expected on or close to Tuesday, January 4.

But the newspaper said the review, which it said is likely to be timed for when MPs return to Westminster on Wednesday, could see the work from home guidance remain in place into the latter half of the month.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had initially stated he wanted the measures lifted “no later than early January and possibly before”.

It comes as Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University statistician and government adviser, said the UK’s daily Covid-19 cases could be closer to 500,000 due to the testing regime being overstretched and reinfections not being counted in the UK government data.

“This is a huge, unprecedented wave of infection and very daunting,” the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) adviser told the BBC.

But Sir David said deaths were “not yet going up” and that the country could be “fairly optimistic” about avoiding the kind of pressures seen during the last winter wave.

“It looks like we are going to have a huge wave of cases and that is going to cause big disruption, in hospitals of course and other services, but in terms of translating to the very serious outcomes, I think we can be fairly optimistic,” said Sir David.

“Things will get worse but it will be nothing like the previous waves.”