No more Covid restrictions before new year, says Sajid Javid

Ministers will look again in January at whether fresh curbs needed, says health secretary

Adam Forrest
Monday 27 December 2021 20:53
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No more Covid restrictions before New Year, says Sajid Javid

Boris Johnson’s government has ruled out further Covid restrictions in England before the new year, leaving the country at odds with other parts of the UK where curbs have been tightened to tackle the Omicron variant.

Health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that the prime minister had decided not to bring in any fresh measures this week, but said ministers would look again in January at whether more controls were needed.

“There will be no further measures before the new year,” Mr Javid told reporters on Monday. “We won’t be taking any further measures. Of course people should remain cautious as we approach new year celebrations.”

The prime minister said added that he would “continue to monitor the data carefully.”

However, Mr Johnson was warned that the NHS could soon be “overwhelmed” by the rise in Covid cases, as the trade union for hospital doctors said it was “ludicrous” not to bring in further measures immediately.

Daily Covid case numbers hit record highs in England and Scotland over Christmas, figures published on Monday showed, while the number of Covid patients in London hospitals increased by almost 50 per cent within a week.

The Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA) said it was time for Downing Street to bring in fresh restrictions – including limits on household mixing and table service only in pubs and restaurants.

“We would definitely propose that there is a more precautionary approach taken – we should be doing something more,” HCSA president Dr Claudia Paoloni said on Monday, adding that it would “take very little” to overwhelm the health service in the weeks ahead.

The decision not to impose restrictions beyond the plan B measures already in place in England comes after Mr Johnson was briefed by England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance on infections and hospitalisations.

The latest data shows a clear increase in Covid bed occupancy over the past week. Across England, a total of 8,474 patients were in hospital with the disease on 27 December, compared to 6,688 a week before – a 27 per cent rise.

And in the capital, the hotspot for the Omicron variant, bed occupancy has surged by almost 50 per cent over this time frame, increasing from 1,819 to 2,640.

Dr Julia Patterson, chief executive of the campaign group Every Doctor, told Sky News: “This government has chosen not to act early with the Omicron variant … There seems to be a reticence to listen to experts, which is deeply concerning – we’ve seen this so many times before.”

Ian Higginson, vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said the current number of staff absences from Covid in NHS emergency departments could soon “push us over the edge”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “Our members, those who got back to us, were pretty emphatic that they are suffering significant staffing issues right now. We’re worried that something is going to have to give.”

However, Conservative MPs welcomed the news that there would be no recall of parliament to push through further legal restrictions this week.

Tory lockdown sceptic Andrew Bridgen said: “The reason we’re not having any further restrictions is because the data just doesn’t support it … What’s happened in Wales and Scotland is an overreaction.”

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said it would “not be a cop-out at all” for Mr Johnson to offer strengthened guidance on socialising rather than legal restrictions, adding: “I think that would be a very sensible way to go forward.”

Restrictions on hospitality and large events have been brought in elsewhere in the UK, with the Scottish government ordering nightclubs to be shuttered from Monday while hospitality businesses will need to return to table service only if serving alcohol.

Asked why Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had chosen to tighten up restrictions ahead of the new year celebrations, Mr Javid said: “It’s for each country that makes up the UK to decide how it wants to go forward.”

He added: “When we get into the new year, of course we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures, but nothing more until then at least.”

Labour said people “will be relieved” to see no new restrictions, but urged the government to “come forward with a plan” to keep the NHS running and schools open through the latest wave.

Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, called on the government to publish all the latest data on hospitalisations and NHS staff absences “so that the public can be reassured that they are genuinely following the data and scientific advice and that Boris Johnson is not simply capitulating to his own opponents in the Tory party”.

England saw its highest-ever daily total of Covid cases on Christmas Day, when 113,628 cases were recorded. A further 103,558 cases were recorded on Boxing Day and a further 98,515 cases confirmed on Monday, following a lag in the data over the festive holiday.

Scotland also hit its highest number of Covid cases since the start of the pandemic after 11,030 cases were confirmed for Boxing Day. First minister Nicola Sturgeon said that while the rate of hospital admissions with Omicron is lower than previous strains, rising cases will “put inevitable further strain on the NHS”.

Meanwhile, the UK Health Security Agency announced 45,307 additional confirmed cases of the Omicron variant. The number of deaths in England of people with Omicron variant rose to 39, while hospital admissions with Omicron in England rose to 407.

Mr Javid said the Omicron variant was now growing so fast that it accounts for 90 per cent of all new Covid cases. The health secretary said that since the government had learned of Omicron its strategy had been to “buy time”, adding that the best form of defence was vaccination.

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