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.
But Sajid Javid said the record-breaking Omicron wave of infection will “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 the spread of the highly transmissible variant.
Government figures showed a further 189,846 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases had been recorded in the UK on Friday, another new record for daily reported cases.
But a leading statistician said the actual number of daily cases could be closer to half-a-million, with the UK going into the new year in the midst of an “unprecedented wave” of infections.
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 continued.
“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.”
The Cabinet minister said 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 is “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% week-on-week.
The Daily Telegraph reported that work from home guidance, which is in place as part of England’s Plan B measures – and also includes widespread mask wearing in public places and mandatory Covid passes for large events – could be set to roll on for another three weeks.
The restrictions brought in last month are set to expire six weeks after implementation, with a review after three weeks, which is expected on or close to Tuesday January 4.
But the newspaper said the review, which it said is likely to be timed for when MPs return to Westminster on Wednesday, could see the work from home guidance remain in place into the latter half of the month.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had initially stated he wanted the measures lifted “no later than early January and possibly before”.
It comes as Professor 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,” said Sir David.
“Things will get worse but it will be nothing like the previous waves.”
Meanwhile, a number of high-profile advisers on the front line of the UK’s Covid response have been recognised in the New Year Honours List.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, deputy CMO Jonathan Van-Tam, and Wales’ and Scotland’s CMOs, Frank Atherton and Dr Gregor Smith, have been given knighthoods.
There are also damehoods for UK Health Security Agency chief, Dr Jenny Harries – whose organisation is responsible for the country’s testing regime – and Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
The Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who was knighted in the 2019 New Year Honours list, is elevated to a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.