The prime minister insisted that Plan B restrictions were “helping to take the lead from the Omicron wave” as Downing Street said more than 20 NHS trusts were placed at the highest alert level.
Boris Johnson told lawmakers he was right to oppose the introduction of stricter COVID measures before Christmas, as cabinet agreed to impose existing home restrictions while easing travel testing rules.
But case rates continued to rise, along with hospitalizations, as staffing shortages plagued the NHS.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said on Wednesday afternoon that more than 20 trusts had now declared a significant event where priority services could be at risk, but stressed that it was “not a good indicator of healthcare pressure”. ” Was.
The number of people suffering from corona virus in the hospital is the highest since February last year.
And Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said hospitals were being hit by three issues at once – the increasing number of hospitalizations, staffing and non-Covid issues that existed before the pandemic. Were.
He said the NHS was “stretched like never before”.
In England, around one in 15 people in private homes had Covid-19, according to an ONS (Office for National Statistics) estimate – with levels rising to one in 10 in London.
As of 9am on Wednesday, the UK had 194,747 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases, while 334 more deaths were recorded – although this figure included a backlog of hospital figures for England from 1 January.
Government data also showed that a total of 17,276 people were in hospital with Covid-19 in the UK as of 4 January, up 58 per cent week-on-week – though down from a peak of around 40,000 in January 2021.
The ONS said an estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had COVID-19 in the week ending 31 December, up from 2.3 million in the week to 23 December and the comparative figures were the highest since the start in autumn 2020.
In the Commons, Mr Johnson said hospital admissions were “doubling every nine days” and “we are experiencing the sharpest increase in Covid cases ever known”.
He said cases were doubling every week among the over 60s.
But he said Plan B measures – including widespread use of face masks and guidance for working from home – were “helping to take the lead from the omicron wave”, slowing the spread, easing pressure on the NHS and buying time for the booster campaign. to take effect.
The sanctions will be reviewed again before they are set to expire on 26 January and will require a vote in the Commons to proceed beyond that date, something that will see the prime minister once again leading to a major backbench Tory rebellion. may face.
Mr Johnson also confirmed plans to be implemented across the UK to eliminate the need for confirmatory PCR tests for asymptomatic people who test positive using a lateral flow device (LFD).
The change in testing procedures is aimed at freeing up laboratory capacity for PCR tests, requiring confirmatory tests in asymptomatic people, until the current high levels of infection subside.
This change is being implemented in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, in Scotland and Wales on Thursday and in England from 11 January.
The UK Health Protection Agency said people who have COVID-19 symptoms should still undergo a PCR test.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said: “To require a confirmatory test for people getting LFD is not a sensible use of PCR capability.
“When the prevalence is as high as it is currently, LFDs, while already accurate, tend to be extremely accurate given specificity.”
Professor John Edmonds, a member of the government’s Sage Scientific Advisory Panel, supported the move, saying that a confirmatory PCR “not only wastes time, but also costs a lot of money and uses laboratory resources that are better used elsewhere.” can be done”.
Exemptions in the new rules include those eligible for a £500 test and trace support payment, who will still need a confirmatory PCR to access help.
PCR will also be required for people participating in research and surveillance programs and those at risk of becoming critically ill who have been identified as potentially eligible for the new treatment.
Ministers also approved changes to travel arrangements for England, eliminating the need for pre-departure tests from 4am on Friday.
Mr Johnson also said that the requirement to self-isolate on arrival until a negative PCR test is obtained was being phased out, instead returning to the system in October last year, where passengers would later sideline from the latter end. There was no need to do a flow test. Two days after arriving in England, with a PCR test if they were positive.
The impact of the Omicron-driven surge in coronavirus cases and staff absenteeism is also causing major problems in public services.
The fire brigade union said about a third of London firefighters had not worked during the past week, while about 10 per cent of operational firefighters in the capital had either tested positive or were self-isolating.
While the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) was still asking patients suffering from suspected stroke or heart attack to take relatives to the hospital following pressure on staff due to the coronavirus and New Year’s demands.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cut the period of self-isolation to seven days provided people have two negative lateral flow tests, roughly in line with measures taken in England.
But large gatherings and hospitality and leisure businesses will remain banned in Scotland until at least 17 January.