Boris Johnson said on Tuesday he believes England can dispel the Omicron wave of coronavirus infections without the need to “close our country again”, which offers a new year boost for business.
The prime minister acknowledged that hospitals were on a “war base”, but said a mix of England’s existing Covid-19 restrictions and the booster vaccine campaign would keep the economy open.
The prime minister’s bullish mood has reassured conservative MPs, many of whom oppose any further restrictions on tackling the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Johnson tells a press conference in Downing Street: “I would say we have a very good chance of getting through the Omicron wave without the need for further restrictions and without the need, certainly, for a constraint.”
But he said people would be “terribly wrong” to think that the battle with Covid is over, adding that some hospitals have already felt “at least temporarily overwhelmed”.
He confirmed a record nearly 219,000 Covid-19 cases across the UK in the latest 24-hour period, although the figures partly reflected some delay in the collection of data over the Christmas holiday period.
Johnson also announced that about 100,000 critical workers, including those in food processing, transportation and border control, will receive daily Covid tests to combat the spread of coronavirus to colleagues.
At least six NHS hospital trusts in England have declared a critical incident in recent days in response to the tension of increasing staff shortages and increasing Covid admissions.
Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust and Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Wiltshire are among those affected.
Johnson’s cabinet is expected to endorse on Wednesday its proposal that England should continue with its so-called Plan B restrictions: work from home guidance, wearing a mask in public places and Covid Pass for mass events.
His position will avoid the possibility of a cabinet mutiny – ministers led by Chancellor Rishi Sunak are against new restrictions unless compelling new data comes to light – and the prospect of a massive Tory rebellion in parliament.
Nearly 100 Tory MPs voted against Johnson’s limited Covid restrictions before Christmas, and sometimes returned to Westminster on Wednesday in a much better state of mind.
Theresa Villiers, a former cabinet minister, sent a message to the Covid Recovery Group of lock-up skeptical Conservative MPs: “It does not seem to have coincided with an improvement in the polls. Who knew?”
Although Johnson’s decision not to go beyond Plan B was driven in part by a fear of war with his own party, some MPs were willing to give him credit for keeping England largely open over Christmas.
One former Conservative minister said: “I’m sure there are some – whether in the cabinet or in the back seats – who will try to take some glory, but he’s the prime minister, he’s finally made the decision and he get the credit. “
Other Tory MPs claimed Johnson had been reluctantly forced to give in to pressure from his own side for no further restrictions, and that his leadership was still under pressure.
Even as Johnson navigates the Omicron boom, he still has to deal with a crisis over the cost of living and an investigation into media reports about parties in Downing Street amid Covid restrictions in 2020.
Johnson acknowledged that the Omicron wave had put pressure on the NHS; there are now 15,000 people in England’s hospitals with Covid. But while numbers are rising, they are less than half of the highs recorded in January last year.
He said unvaccinated people put the NHS under pressure: 90 percent of people in intensive care units with Covid did not have a booster, and 60 percent did not get a single stab.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said that while he was in London Omicron may flatten among younger people, Covid has now “moved up the age range” to a more vulnerable group.
He added that as cases escalated in the coming weeks, the NHS would be hit hard by staff shortages and that Covid testing infrastructure would be “incredibly protracted”.
Vallance said he expects future Covid vaccinations – such as flu shots – to be given as the disease become endemic in society.
Additional post by Sebastian Payne