Whether the gamble will pay off is still unknown, but the odds have lengthened in the past few days, which is why tents are being thrown up in hospital car parks across the country.
The larger ones, known as Little Nightingales or “Boris wards”, are where improving but not fully recovered patients will be kept should hospitals start to overflow. The smaller ones are made by Nutwell Logistics and other purveyors of “soft-shell body storage solutions”.
Ahead of Christmas, there were reasons to be cheerful. South Africa’s hospitals had not been overwhelmed, case growth was slowing and doctors were reporting a milder illness.
Government scientists cautioned that Africa was not England, and that festive mixing could not be later undone, but the odds seemed pretty even when the Cabinet met on the afternoon of Dec 20 to spin the wheel.
Today, alas, things are not looking as good. The logarithmic charts of Prof Oliver Johnson, the Bristol mathematician, show that hospital admissions are rising exponentially.
There were 2,370 admissions in England on Friday – up 69 per cent on the week – and the surge is now impacting not just London and the young but all areas of the country and all age groups.
In the North East and Yorkshire NHS region, admissions have more than doubled in a week, up 117 per cent.
There is also nothing yet in the UK data yet to suggest that hospital stays are any shorter, and Covid occupancy of ICU beds has once again started to creep up. It climbed seven per cent in England on the week, with growth focused on London and the East.
But if there is a storm to come, it has yet to make itself felt. Front-line doctors to whom The Telegraph talked last week said they were seeing a “milder illness” and that, while things were busy, there was no crisis yet.
Dr Andrew Goddard, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, said staff absence was his biggest concern.
“It’s workforce, workforce, workforce,” he said. “I think omicron is hopefully going to be a relatively short sharp shock… Provided the number of hospital admissions as omicron hits the over-65s isn’t too bad, I don’t think there’s going to be as much of an impact on the services as a year ago.”
He added, however, that if the tents were needed it would signal an “emergency in extremis”.