Boris Johnson’s decision to hold his nerve and leave England to go it alone by refusing to cancel New Year’s Eve was today criticised by gloomy experts.
The Prime Minister wants to rely on guidance urging people to limit socialising ahead of the last social hurrah of 2021, rather than impose legally binding curbs like in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Environment Secretary George Eustice today insisted the Government is keeping close tabs on Covid admissions and refused to rule out adopting further restrictions in January.
But critics have slammed No10’s decision to keep nightclubs and other hospitality venues open for New Year’s festivities, with one medical union chief claiming it ‘speaks volumes’ about the PM’s approach.
Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist based at Imperial College London, said the move seems to show the ‘greatest divergence between expert clinical/scientific advice and legislation’.
And University of Brighton virologist Dr Sarah Pitt said having different rules in England will just lead to people in Wales and Scotland travelling across the border to celebrate NYE, before returning home and potentially taking the virus with them.
However, Tory MPs have backed Mr Johnson for holding firm against calls to impose tougher sanctions, arguing it is better to trust in the ‘good sense of the British people’.
And NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said hospital trusts are not yet reporting a huge surge in patients needing critical care and ventilators that triggered the winter lockdown last year after the onset of the Alpha variant.
Official coronavirus statistics appeared to justify the Government’s reluctance to resort to economically-crippling curbs, with the number of cases recorded in England having fallen every day since Christmas.
Yesterday’s confirmed infections were up just seven per cent in a week to 98,515 but the figures were for England only, and did not represent Britain’s situation as a whole.
Tory MP Mark Francois (left) has praised Boris Johnson’s decision to hold his nerve and go it alone by not cancelling New Year’s Eve. But experts including Professor Danny Altmann (left) slammed the move, arguing it shows the ‘greatest divergence between expert clinical/scientific advice and legislation’
UK Government statistics show how the number of Covid tests being conducted has reached 1.5m a day, with the number of swabs carried out having increased massively since Omicron first emerged
Covid staffing crisis grips UK: Unions warn Omicron spread has left public services in a ‘perilous state’
Unions today warned Omicron has left public services in a ‘perilous state’ with recycling centres forced to close and bin collections under threat in London – while flights were grounded and trains cancelled.
Lewisham council announced its main reuse and recycling centre will be shut until Wednesday and black bin collections would be prioritised in the event of delays to recycling collections.
Nationwide, 6.8 per cent of trains were cancelled yesterday, compared to an annual average of 2.9 per cent, the Rail Delivery Group said.
Trains in Warwickshire have been suspended ‘indefinitely’, affecting services between Leamington Spa, Nuneaton and Coventry.
More than 2,200 flights were scrapped globally yesterday, FlightAware tracking data shows, with Heathrow cancelling 60 flights on Sunday.
Gatwick said it had only three cancellations out of 215 flights on Sunday, and none yesterday.
Local government chiefs have said nationwide staff shortages are particularly acute in waste collection, as well as other areas including social care and child services.
Jon Richard, the assistant general secretary of Unison, the public services union, told the Guardian: ‘Key health, council, care and police services have so many staff off that lots are worried they will not be able to keep going.
‘That’s why extra measures to curb virus spread are of the utmost importance in the coming weeks. Years of cuts have left services with just enough staff to get by in normal times. Now Omicron has put paid to that, leaving services in a perilous state.’
Concerns have also been raised about the reopening of schools after the Christmas break, with Paul Whiteman, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, warning some pupils could be sent home if there aren’t enough staff to teach them.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the BBC that absences had reached at ‘unsustainable’ levels at some schools, with up to 25 per cent of staff off in the week leading up to Christmas.
‘We don’t know what next week will look like. We’re not catastrophising that but we are saying we must have a sense of realism around this,’ he said.
Mr Eustice acknowledged that infection rates from the new Omicron variant were rising but argued there was evidence it was not resulting in the same level of hospital admissions as previous waves.
‘There is early encouragement from what we know in South Africa that you have fewer hospitalisations and that the number of days that they stay in hospital if they do go into hospital is also lower than in previous variants,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘At the moment we don’t think that the evidence supports any more interventions beyond what we have done.
‘But obviously we have got to keep it under very close review, because if it is the case that we started to see a big increase in hospitalisations then we would need to act further.’
However, scientists warned that any move to impose restrictions later than New Year’s Eve could be too late, arguing the decision was made on political rather than scientific grounds.
Professor Altmann told The Guardian: ‘It does feel hard that, at a time when we need to all pull together to maximise all possible mitigations, we seem to have our greatest divergence between expert clinical/scientific advice and legislation.’
And University of Reading cellular microbiologist Dr Simon Clarke warned official data does not take into account the picture in Britain between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.
He suggested the move was based on incomplete data and it would only become clear how the virus was moving through the population in another week or so — after New Year’s Eve has taken place.
Dr Clarke said: ‘While nobody wants to live under tighter controls, the public need to realise that if we end up with a significant problem of hospitalisations and mass sickness, it will be worse than if authorities had acted earlier.’
And Dr Pitt said it does not make sense for UK nations to have different Covid restrictions because partygoers from the other home nations will just go to England on New Year’s Eve before returning home.
She told LBC Radio: ‘If people can’t go to a New Year’s Eve party in Wales or Scotland, they’ll just tip over the borders into England, won’t they, thus potentially taking the virus and spreading it… and then taking it back home.
‘So it makes sense to have one set of measures across the whole country and I think it does make sense to have some measures to try and stop the spread of the virus at this point.’
Dr Pitt called for ‘a few measures’ to curb the spread of the Omicron variant. The microbiology lecturer said the ‘seriously infectious virus’ is ‘putting some people very seriously in hospital, and some people are dying’.
She told LBC Radio: ‘I know personally more people who’ve been off sick with Covid in the last month than the whole of the pandemic put together.
‘So although there is a balance between the economy and health, they’re not mutually exclusive – it’s not one or the other.
‘We’ve actually got to take the virus seriously, and I’m not talking about full lockdowns, I’m just talking about a few measures for some things to just try and stop the spread of this really horrible, nasty virus, just at this moment.’
Dr David Nicholls, of the Doctors’ Association, said staffing shortages over the coming weeks would be a bigger strain on the NHS than the number of patients in beds.
He told Sky News: ‘Our biggest worry at the moment is staffing and we are seeing that in terms of increased staff infection rates.
‘And there are simple measures that could be done — we’ve written to the UK Health Security Agency asking for an upgrade on their outdated PPE to provide FP3 masks, which offer better protection than is currently available.
‘Given the staff sickness rates, we all worry as we go into the New Year how we’re going to manage. That is causing stress in staff in all groups, not just doctors but nursing staff as well.’
He continued: ‘When I talk to my colleagues in critical care, they all tell me they have less staff than they did a year ago.’
Asked if shortages were taken into account in Boris Johnson’s decision making, he said: ‘No. I think it’s interesting if you look at the different parts of the UK, they’re doing things differently and presumably they’re looking at exactly the same datasets.
‘I think that speaks volumes.’
And members of Independent SAGE — a group of scientists who have consistently called for tougher curbs throughout the pandemic — claimed shutting down hospitality venues and imposing legal sanctions on socialising ‘are not restrictions’.
Dr Zubaida Haque, whose background is in ethnicity and inequality, told The Daily Telegraph: ‘Emergency Covid public health measures are not restrictions, they’re protections.’
Meanwhile, Dr Julia Patterson, the founder of the EveryDoctorUK campaign group, also said the concept of restrictions needed to be ‘framed differently’.
She told Sky News: ‘We need to stop calling public health measures “restrictions”. They’re there to protect the vulnerable people in our society, who matter just as much as anyone else.
Covid hospitalisation rate in London soared 62% in week before Christmas
Omicron’s rapid spread in London is already piling pressure on strained NHS hospitals, according to official data that lays bare the situation the capital faces in the coming weeks.
The city’s Covid hospitalisation rate — which includes patients who are ill with the virus and need medical care as well as ones who incidentally tested positive — rose by 62 per cent in a week in the final seven-day spell ahead of Christmas.
It means London was teetering on the brink of 400 admissions per day before the Government’s Christmas data black-out, a figure thought to be No10’s trigger point for imposing fresh England-wide restrictions.
Despite being just a fraction of the levels seen during the depths of the devastating second wave, medics fear the rate will keep rising because of the time lag between people getting infected and becoming severely ill.
Daily case numbers have yet to slow down in the city, and over-60s – who are most vulnerable to the virus – are also seeing an uptick.
‘I know everybody’s wanted to take a Christmas break and it’s understandable that people are reluctant to think about these, as they are called, called restrictions.
‘But I think we need to frame them differently and think about them as public health measures which are going to protect people.’
But Tory MPs have supported the Prime Minister, arguing the decision has shown the Government’s trust in the public to make their own decisions about personal safety.
Mark Francois told GB News: ‘It’s remarkable how a backbench rebellion of 101 MPs focuses minds, isn’t it? But let’s not be churlish, this is the right decision, well done Prime Minister.
‘We are asking people to use their common sense — we’re being conservatives. We’re trusting in the good sense of the British people.’
And Brendan Clarke-Smith added: ‘It’s about trusting people to make their own decisions about their lives and to use their common sense.’
Some experts have also backed the move, saying the data shows the public have already shown responsibility in their reaction to current case levels.
Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said the public had been ‘pretty responsible’ in its response to the spread of the Omicron variant.
He BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The health minister has taken advice and looked at the data. I think his judgment where we should go in the next few days is probably fine.
‘There are a lot of people who are aware that we are in the face of this large wave of disease. The behaviour of people in the UK, in England in particular, has been pretty responsible in terms of trying not to go out and spending a lot of time exposing yourself to the virus.
‘You look at the people on the streets, the roads are quiet, all that stuff. I think that’s likely to continue for the next week as we see how this thing evolves.’
Sir John said since the rollout of the vaccination programme there had been no increase the incidence of severe illness and death from the disease.
He said: ‘The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago — intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely — that is now history in my view and I think we should reassured that that’s likely to continue.’
And NHS Providers boss Mr Hopson said: ‘Talking to chief executives this morning, the sense is that admissions are rising but not precipitously so.’
He admitted that a number of patients testing positive for Covid in hospitals were being admitted for other reasons and not showing any signs of the disease.
Mr Hopson said: ‘Trusts are not, at the moment, reporting large numbers of patients with Covid-type respiratory problems needing critical care or massively increased use of oxygen, both of which we saw in last January’s Delta variant peak.’