The health secretary says A&E pressures and a rising number of COVID patients could trigger the government’s “plan B” for the winter – as experts warned hospital admissions could reach 7,000 a day.
Sajid Javid added that a new variant of concern would not necessarily be a trigger as he refused to rule out a lockdown.
Plan B, which includes mandatory face masks, a work from home order and vaccine passports, was revealed by the government on Tuesday as part of the autumn and winter plan for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The health secretary told Sky News: “What happens in the NHS is going to be hugely important to me, to the whole country, making sure that we don’t get to a position again where the NHS becomes unsustainable.
“I think we’re going to have to look at a number of measures, so of course that would be the level of hospitalisation, it will be the pressures on A&E, the pressures on the workforce, so we’d have to take all of these together.”
However, he refused to put a number on how many cases or admissions would trigger plan B.
Mr Javid also defended the government’s advice that people return to their workplaces after scientists warned a new wave of coronavirus hospital admissions could be triggered.
Experts advising the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned pressure on the NHS could rise “very quickly” with daily hospital admissions rising to 7,000 by next month as more than a year of working from home comes to an end.
But Mr Javid said the government plan was “well thought through” even though there was “no risk-free decision”.
He told Sky News: “Obviously there’s other reports and things, and it is right that experts are looking at what’s happening and trying to come up with their best guess of where things might go based on certain assumptions.
“My job as health secretary, and other ministers, is to take all of that together and make the best decision that we can.
“I’ll remind you, back when we made the Step 4 decision there were also experts saying that ‘case rates are going to surge to 200,000, hospitalisations are going to go to 2,000 to 3,000 a day – don’t do it’.
“We have to listen to them but eventually make what we think is the right decision. There is no risk-free decision but I think what we have announced in terms of this plan, is well thought through.
“It is the act of a responsible government to set out this is our plan, this is how we are going to protect the gains, but just in case things are not quite as we want them to be we have got to have another plan and get that ready too.”
There are currently up to 1,000 people being admitted to UK hospitals with COVID-19 each day, while last winter’s peak saw 4,500 a day.
The statement from the SAGE sub-group, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), said there is still “the potential for another large wave of hospitalisations” as the pandemic continues.
“While the relationship between cases and hospitalisations has changed due to vaccination, increasing cases remain the earliest warning sign that hospital admissions are likely to rise,” it said.
The group said the early use of measures to control spread, which could include continued homeworking, cut the need for tougher measures later on.
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It added: “There is a clear consensus that continued high levels of homeworking has played a very important role in preventing sustained epidemic growth in recent months.
“It is highly likely that a significant decrease in homeworking in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions.
“As well as encouraging homeworking, more light-touch measures could include clear messaging that recommends people act cautiously, more widespread testing, a return to requiring all contacts of cases to isolate, and more mask-wearing.”