Boris Johnson has defended his decision to impose no new coronavirus restrictions ahead of the new year, a move that leaves England out of step with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on introducing curbs.
The British prime minister said he had looked at “the balance of risks” amid record numbers of daily Covid-19 infections, almost all of them involving the Omicron variant.
“We see the data showing that, yes, the cases are rising and, yes, hospitalisations are rising, but what is making a huge difference is the level of booster[-induced] resistance or level of vaccine-induced resistance in the population,” he said.
“What we need to do now is really finish off that work. I’ve no doubt at all that by January 1st, by the new year, every adult in the country will have been offered the slot to get a booster [Covid-19 vaccine]. They’ll be given a slot to get one. The question is, are we getting people coming forward to take advantage of those slots? And that’s what needs to happen.”
Patients with Covid-19 occupied more than 10,000 hospital beds in England on Wednesday, up by almost 10 per cent on the previous day and almost 50 per cent higher than a week ago. But the number receiving mechanical ventilation has remained stable throughout December and hospitalisations and deaths are lower than during the last peak of infections earlier this year.
Mr Johnson said most of the patients in intensive care with Covid-19 had not yet received their third vaccination dose.
“I’m sorry to say this, but the overwhelming majority of people who are currently ending up in intensive care in our hospitals are people who are not boosted,” he said.
“If you’re not vaccinated, you’re eight times more likely to get into hospital altogether. So it’s a great thing to do. It’s very, very important. Get boosted for yourself, and enjoy new year sensibly and cautiously.”
Mr Johnson's government has resisted calls to reduce the time for self-isolation after testing positive with Covid-19 to five days, as the National Health Service (NHS) and other essential services experience staff shortages. People who test positive are currently allowed to leave self-isolation after seven days if they record negative lateral flow tests on two consecutive days.
Lateral flow tests are free of charge in the UK and can be ordered from the NHS by post or collected at pharmacies, but a surge in demand has led to a shortage of the tests this week. Pharmacies reported low and inconsistent supplies and the NHS website often showed a message saying no delivery slots were available.
With Mr Johnson telling people to take a lateral flow test before going out to celebrate New Year's Eve on Friday, Labour's shadow health secretary Wes Streeting described the supply situation as a shambles.
“People are trying to do the right thing, follow the government’s own advice and test themselves regularly, but are prevented by the Conservative government’s incompetence,” he said.
“They need to get a grip and provide enough tests so people can keep themselves and everyone else safe.”