A senior UK minister has expressed cautious optimism that new Covid-19 restrictions will not be needed in England given that infection rates in London — the centre of the Omicron outbreak — are starting to “plateau”.
Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary, said there was “nothing in the data” to suggest the need for new restrictions in the coming weeks.
Zahawi warned that ministers needed to “keep a close eye” because there were signs of a “leakage of infections” into the cohort of people over the age of 50, who are more vulnerable to hospitalisation. But he told the BBC: “The good news is they are boosted, the most important intervention is the vaccination programme and the boosters.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said there had been some encouraging data from the “epicentre” of the Omicron outbreak.
“We were seeing increases in the number of Covid-19 patients in London hospitals go up by 9 per cent a day, 15 per cent a day . . . in terms of 27th, 28th and 29th of December,” he said.
“Interestingly, in the last two days the increases have only been 1 per cent and 2 per cent, so they’ve dropped pretty significantly, so there’s a hope we might have seen a possible peak and plateau.”
On Wednesday ministers will meet to review the existing plan B measures which were introduced three weeks ago against the wishes of at least 100 Tory MPs.
Some Conservative MPs are angry that ministers announced at the weekend that students returning to secondary schools in England this week will have to wear face masks at least until January 26. Pupils will also be tested for Covid on site at least once before re-entering classrooms and have been urged to take tests at home twice a week.
The government has also told schools that they can consider delivering teaching remotely to some pupils or combine classes if some teachers are off sick.
NHS leaders have warned of a growing health emergency as hospitals struggle to maintain sufficient staff with many off sick with Covid or self-isolating because they have come into contact with infected people.
Hospitals in Lincolnshire have declared a major incident owing to “extreme” and “unprecedented” staff shortages related to Covid.
United Lincolnshire Hospitals, which runs four sites in the county, said in a statement it was taking “additional steps to maintain services” owing to significant staffing issues.
Swansea’s Morriston Hospital said it could only provide a “limited service” in its emergency department over the Bank Holiday weekend because of staffing shortages.
The overall rise in England’s hospitalisations over the seven days to Sunday was 75 per cent, with the north-east and Yorkshire showing the biggest increase at 119 per cent.
Aside from the slowing rate of admissions in London, Hopson said the other “positive news” was that “hospitals are still not seeing large numbers of seriously ill older people. CEOs across the country are echoing London colleagues in pointing to the fact that care-home Omicron outbreaks are not translating into hospital admissions.”
“The issue for the NHS is not the size of [the] very ill older people [with] Covid caseload, but the number of staff absences and general admissions with Covid on top of existing pressures,” Hopson added. “This is still stretching the NHS very significantly.”