Boris Johnson has rejected new coronavirus measures as infections reached a record daily figure of 218,724, declaring that Britain could "ride out" the Omicron wave without them. Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street, the prime minister said he believed the modest measures currently in force in England represented a "balanced approach" to increased strains on the National Health Service (NHS).
"The NHS is now under a lot of pressure, but I'm also confident that we can get through it and what we're doing is supporting the NHS in any way we can and we will continue to do that," he said.
“Lockdowns, further restrictions, are not cost-free for lives, for livelihoods, for life chances, closing schools. These are very, very difficult things to do and have long-term consequences.”
Masks are again mandatory in most indoor public spaces in England, coronavirus certification is required for entry into nightclubs and other big venues, and people are advised to work from home if possible. But unlike in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are no restrictions on bars or restaurants or legal limits on the number of people who can meet indoors.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned against underestimating the impact of Omicron, adding that although there were signs that infections among younger people in London may have peaked, the same was not true of older, more vulnerable groups. He said people should still be careful about going to crowded places and should prioritise the social contacts most important to them.
“Obviously hopefully there will come a point in the near future where rates are coming down, but until we’ve reached a peak in the most vulnerable people we need to keep messaging very, very steady on this,” he said.
The surge in infections has created staff shortages in the NHS and other essential services and Mr Johnson said the government had identified 100,000 critical workers who would be offered daily lateral flow tests.
The Omicron wave has put pressure on Britain's coronavirus testing system with the supply of free testing kits stalling over the Christmas break and Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the government of letting people down.
“What we know about this variant is it’s obviously highly infectious, but also there are many people without any symptoms at all, and so we need to separate out those who’ve got the variant and those who haven’t. The best way to do that is mass lateral flow tests and the government has let us down because those tests aren’t available on anything like the scale that we need,” he said.
Sir Keir made the remarks during a speech in Birmingham in which he promised to restore trust in Britain's institutions if Labour won power after the next election. Standing before two union flags, he described Labour as a "deeply patriotic party" and praised Tony Blair as well as the party's other two electorally successful post-war leaders Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson.
Labour starts the new year ahead of the Conservatives in the polls and Sir Keir is enjoying his biggest lead over Mr Johnson since becoming leader.