Boris Johnson insisted he was right to stick to England’s Plan B coronavirus measures despite rapidly increasing hospital admissions, skyrocketing case rates and shortages of staff that hit the NHS.
The prime minister told MPs the Cabinet agreed to maintain existing national restrictions, but relaxed travel test rules.
He also confirmed plans being implemented across the UK to end the requirement for confirmatory PCR testing for asymptomatic people who test positive using a lateral flow device (LFD). .
An estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending December 31, up from 2.3 million in the week to December 23 and the highest number since comparable figures began in fall 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said. .
In England, around one in 15 people in private households had Covid-19, according to ONS estimates – a level reaching one in 10 in London.
As of 9:00 a.m. as of Wednesday, another 194,747 laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in the UK, while 334 more deaths were recorded – although that figure includes a backlog of hospital data from England since the 1st. January.
Government figures also showed a total of 17,276 people were hospitalized in the UK with Covid-19 as of January 4, up 58% week-over-week – although well below peak nearly 40,000 in January 2021.
In the Commons, Mr Johnson said hospital admissions “are doubling about every nine days” and “we are experiencing the fastest growing Covid cases we have ever seen”.
Cases were doubling every week among those over 60, he added.
But he said Plan B measures – including wider use of face masks and advice for working from home – “were helping to get the upper hand on the Omicron wave”, slowing the spread, easing pressure on the NHS and saving time for the recall campaign to take effect.
He said Plan B and the test changes were “a balanced and proportionate means of ensuring that we can live with Covid without letting our guard down.”
The restrictions will be reviewed before their scheduled expiry on January 26 and would require a vote in the House of Commons to be extended beyond that date – which could see the prime minister again facing a major revolt from the Tories.
The changes in testing procedures are aimed at freeing up lab capacity for PCR testing, with the requirement for confirmatory testing suspended in asymptomatic people until current high levels of infections subside.
The change was introduced in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, Scotland and Wales on Thursday and England from January 11.
The UK Health Safety Agency (UKHSA) has said that although Covid-19 levels are high, the “vast majority” of people with positive LFD results can be convinced they have the virus.
People who show symptoms of Covid-19 should always have a PCR test, the UKHSA said.
UKHSA Chief Executive Officer Dame Jenny Harries said: “As Covid cases continue to rise, this proven approach means LFDs can be confidently used to indicate Covid-19 infection without having need confirmation by PCR. “
She said it remained important for people with symptoms to self-isolate immediately and order a PCR test.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Sage Government’s Science Advisory Group, supported the move, saying that a confirmatory PCR “not only wastes time, but costs a lot of money and uses laboratory resources that could be better. used elsewhere “.
But he said there were downsides as it would give researchers “a little less information” about the different variants in circulation, as PCR swabs can undergo sequencing to determine which strain of coronavirus is present.
Exemptions to the new rules include people eligible for payment of £ 500 for testing and traceability, who will still need a confirming PCR to access help.
PCRs will also be required for those participating in research and surveillance programs and those at risk of becoming seriously ill and who have been identified as potentially eligible for new treatments.
Ministers also approved changes to the travel regime for England, with the requirement for pre-departure testing being removed from 4 a.m. on Friday.
Mr Johnson also said the requirement to self-isolate on arrival until receiving a negative PCR test on arrival was removed, instead reverting to the system in place in October of the year last, where travelers must take a lateral flow test no later than the end of the second day after arriving in England, with a PCR if they are positive.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) welcomed confirmation that new restrictions would not be introduced in England, but suggested companies may still need additional support.
Matthew Fell, chief policy officer at the CBI, said the Plan B measures had “affected consumer confidence and shaken demand” and that “the level of disease and self-isolation is biting hard in the economy. economy ”.
The surge in coronavirus cases caused by Omicron and the ripple effect of staff absences are also causing major problems in public services.
The Firefighters Union said nearly a third of London’s fire engines had been out of service in the past week, while nearly 10% of operational firefighters in the capital had tested positive or s ‘were self-isolated.
Downing Street said more than 20 NHS trusts had declared a ‘critical incident’, although the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said they were not a ‘good indicator’ of health services performance .
The North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) continues to ask patients with suspected strokes or heart attacks to ask relatives to take them to hospital following pressure on staff due to the coronavirus and New Year’s demand.
NEAS Medical Director Dr Matthew Beattie said: “Where safe, we will continue to ask patients to come to the hospital on their own, but we will never ask anyone to behave themselves. hospital with life-threatening illness. “
In Scotland, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon reduced the period of self-isolation to seven days, as long as people have two negative lateral flow tests, broadly in line with measures in place in England.
But restrictions on large gatherings and hospitality and leisure businesses will remain until at least January 17 in Scotland, she added.