Johnson defends handling of Covid as UK breaks record for daily cases

78,610 infections in 24 hours as experts warn Omicron variant will break more records

Boris Johnson has defended his handling of the resurgence of coronavirus as Britain recorded its highest number of daily infections ever and experts warned that the Omicron variant would break further records.

Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street, the prime minister expressed confidence that booster vaccinations and the modest restrictions approved by MPs this week were an adequate response to the surge in infections.

“We think given the balance this is the right mixture of approaches,” he said.

Chief medical adviser Chris Whitty urged people to be cautious over the holiday season, suggesting they should choose carefully the social engagements they attend.


“I really think people should be prioritising those things that really matter,” he said.

“That’s what most people are very sensibly calculating and that seems to me a very sensible approach, personally. The whole point I’m making is don’t mix with people you don’t have to for either work or the family things that really matter to you would be my general advice to people in this kind of situation.”

The prime minister said he agreed with the “general instinct” to be more cautious but stopped short of encouraging people to call off their Christmas parties.

“We’re not cancelling events, we’re not closing hospitality, we’re not cancelling people’s parties or their ability to mix. We are saying think carefully before you go what kind of an event is it, are you likely to meet people who are vulnerable, are you going to meet loads of people you haven’t met before and get a test before you go,” he said.

Omicron surge

Britain reported 78,610 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the highest figure since the start of the pandemic and a 32 per cent increase since the previous day. Prof Whitty said a surge in cases of the Omicron variant would ensure that infection rates would continue to grow.

He said there was no doubt that Omicron was a serious threat to the National Health Service (NHS) but it remained to be seen how big a threat it would be.

“This is moving at an absolutely phenomenal pace and between the time when it takes off and people are going to be able to see and the time when we get to absolutely phenomenal numbers will be quite a short one,” he said.

"I certainly echo the fact that this is a very serious threat. I think to compare it to each of the very major threats we've faced are quite difficult. I do not wish to underestimate this and for my NHS colleagues in primary and secondary care, I'm afraid there will be an increasing number of NHS patients . . . There will be substantial numbers and that will become fairly apparent after Christmas. That's a reasonably nailed on prospect."

Mr Johnson faced sustained questioning at prime minister's questions on Wednesday from opposition MPs about his authority following reports of parties in Downing Street last year and after more than 100 of his own MPs opposed coronavirus restrictions this week. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was time for the prime minister to go.

“The prime minister’s actions over the last number of months have absolutely eroded public confidence at the worst possible time, during a public health crisis. Excusing rule-breaking by his own MPs, ignoring rule-breaking in his own house – he cannot even lead Tory MPs to vote for his public health guidance, so how can he expect to lead anybody else? Surely it is now time for him to do the right thing, the only thing left to him to restore public confidence and resign,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times