New restrictions on freedom in England “must be an absolute last resort”, the health secretary has said.
The record-breaking wave of the Omicron Covid variant will, however, “test the limits of finite NHS capacity even more than a typical winter”, Sajid Javid said, as hospital admissions in England climbed to their highest since last January.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Javid said England had “welcomed in 2022 with some of the least restrictive measures in Europe”, after the government decided against ramping up protective rules while the devolved countries opted for restrictions on nightclubs, hospitality and 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,” Javid 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.”
The health secretary did emphasise, however, that the time lag between infections and hospital admissions meant it was “inevitable that we will still see a big increase” in the number of Covid patients over the next month and warned that the pandemic was “still far from over”.
A record 189,846 daily new Covid-19 cases were logged in the UK on Friday, according to the government.
However, Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University statistician and government adviser, said the actual number could be closer to half a million new infections a day in an “unprecedented wave”.
Spiegelhalter, who is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the UK’s daily Covid-19 cases could be closer to 500,000 as a result of 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,” he told the BBC, adding that deaths were “not yet going up” and that the country could be “fairly optimistic” about avoiding the kind of crisis seen during the last winter wave, which reached its peak in mid-January 2021.
“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,” he said.
“Things will get worse but it will be nothing like the previous waves.”
Hospital admissions in England are currently higher than at any point since last January, with 2,370 people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 on 29 December, a 90% week-on-week increase.
Reports have suggested that the government’s current work-from-home guidance in England may remain in place for most of January in a bid to slow the spread of the new variant.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the guidance, which is in place as part of England’s plan B measures alongside mask mandates in many public places and mandatory Covid passes for large events, may be extended by another three weeks.
Boris Johnson initially said he wanted the measures, which expire six weeks after implementation, lifted “no later than early January and possibly before”.
A review of the restrictions is expected on or close to 4 January.