Restrictions on freedom “must be an absolute last resort” and the UK must look to “live alongside” coronavirus in 2022, the Health Secretary has said.
Sajid Javid said that the omicron wave of infection would “test the limits of finite NHS capacity even more than a typical winter” as reports suggested a work from home order in England could be in place for most of January to slow its spread.
Government figures showed a record 189,846 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases had been registered in the UK on Friday.
A leading statistician said the actual number of daily cases could be closer to half-a-million.
Mr Javid, writing in the Daily Mail, said England had “welcomed in 2022 with some of the least restrictive measures in Europe”, with the UK Government at odds with the devolved nations in choosing to keep nightclubs open and to allow hospitality to operate without further measures for new year celebrations.
“Curbs on our freedom must be an absolute last resort and the British people rightly expect us to do everything in our power to avert them,” the Health Secretary said.
“Since I came into this role six months ago, I’ve also been acutely conscious of the enormous health, social and economic costs of lockdowns.
“So I’ve been determined that we must give ourselves the best chance of living alongside the virus and avoiding strict measures in the future.”
Mr Javid added that the time lag between infections and hospital admissions meant it was “inevitable that we will still see a big increase” in Covid patients over the next month as he warned that, as the coronavirus crisis entered its third year, the pandemic was “still far from over”.
Hospital admissions in England stand at their highest since last January, with 2,370 Covid-19 patients taken in on December 29 – up 90 per cent week-on-week.
‘Unprecedented wave of infection’
It comes as Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University statistician and Government adviser, said the UK’s daily Covid-19 cases could be closer to 500,000 due to the testing regime being overstretched and reinfections not being counted in the UK Government data.
“This is a huge, unprecedented wave of infection and very daunting,” the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) adviser told the BBC.
But Sir David said deaths were “not yet going up” and that the country could be “fairly optimistic” about avoiding the kind of pressures seen during the last winter wave.
“It looks like we are going to have a huge wave of cases and that is going to cause big disruption, in hospitals of course and other services, but in terms of translating to the very serious outcomes, I think we can be fairly optimistic,” he said
“Things will get worse but it will be nothing like the previous waves.”