Britain’s daily hospital admissions could soon hit record high, Whitty warns

Medical adviser says speed of Omicron’s spread will place hospitals under strain

Britain's chief medical officer has warned that the Omicron variant could send record numbers into hospital, as the country recorded its highest ever number of coronavirus cases for the second day running. There were 88,376 new recorded cases on Thursday, and Chris Whitty told the House of Commons health and social care committee that hospital admissions could soon break the current daily record of 4,583.

“It is possible – because this is going to be very concentrated over a short period of time, even if it’s milder – you could end up with a higher number than that going into hospital on a single day,” he said.

Prof Whitty said the protection offered by vaccinations could mean shorter stays in hospitals and fewer coronavirus patients being admitted to intensive care units. But he warned that hospital capacity would be affected by the speed with which Omicron was spreading, with many hospital staff off work with coronavirus or caring for others with the virus.

“You’re going to have both a reduction in supply and an increase in demand in the health service over a very short time period. And that really is the reason why we’re all taking this extremely seriously,” he said.


"I think what we will see with this is – and I think we're seeing it in South Africa – is that the upswing will be very incredibly fast, even if people are taking more cautious action … It'll probably therefore peak really quite fast. My anticipation is it may then come down faster than previous peaks but I wouldn't want to say that for sure."

Rule-breaking party

Prof Whitty was speaking as France banned British tourists and business travellers from entering the country from Saturday because of the spread of the Omicron variant. But Boris Johnson said he would not advise people to cancel events, but only to exercise caution as they socialised over Christmas.

“If you want to go to an event or a party ... the sensible thing to do is to get a test and to make sure that you’re being cautious. But we’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted,” he said.

The Guardian and the London Independent reported on Thursday that Mr Johnson attended a lockdown-breaking staff party in Downing Street in May 2020. The papers said the prime minister spent about 15 minutes at the event, where staff drank wine and spirits and ate pizza.

Rules at the time allowed only two people from different households to meet outdoors, two metres apart, with indoor household mixing banned. Cabinet secretary Simon Case is investigating a number of events held at Downing Street during lockdown last year and is expected to report in the coming days.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said that, during the summer months, Downing Street staff regularly used the garden for meetings.

“On May 15th, 2020, the prime minister held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon, including briefly with the then health and care secretary and his team in the garden following a press conference. The prime minister went to his residence shortly after 7pm. A small number of staff required to be in work remained in the Downing Street garden for part of the afternoon and evening,” the spokesperson said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times