By Guy Faulconbridge and Alistair Smout
LONDON -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday said that England could withstand a surge in COVID-19 infections without shutting down the economy as Britain reported another record daily high in cases, fuelled by the Omicron variant.
Johnson has resisted imposing stringent lockdown measures in England, betting that a vaccine booster drive and caution among the population would be enough to constrain the latest wave.
The United Kingdom reported 218,724 new COVID cases on Tuesday, a new record for the number of cases reported on a single day – although a figure that also was skewed by reporting lags over the holidays.
Johnson said he was sticking to the “Plan B” measures introduced in England last month, which included the wearing of face coverings on public transport and in shops but did not restrict gatherings or close businesses.
“Together with the Plan B measures that we introduced before Christmas, we have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again. We can keep our schools and our businesses open, and we can find a way to live with this virus,” Johnson said.
“But the weeks ahead are going to be challenging, both here in the UK and across the world. There is no escaping the fact that some services will be disrupted by staff absences,”
Johnson has warned that hospitals would face considerable pressure in coming weeks and on Tuesday announced daily COVID-19 testing for 100,000 critical workers. [L8N2TK3TC]
While admissions have risen since mid-December, they have not tracked the trajectory of daily cases, possibly reflecting the impact of vaccines and booster shots, the likely lower severity of Omicron and the time lag in people going into hospital.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that the mortality rate had not risen with the increase in cases, while Johnson said that over 60% of people in intensive care with COVID had not received a vaccine.
Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said that the pattern in hospitalisations may change as the Omicron wave seeps into older age groups.
“Hospitalisations are still generally going up across the country, and we may see high levels for some weeks,” he told BBC Radio.
“Vaccination is holding up in terms of protection against severe disease, assisted by the fact that Omicron almost certainly is substantially less severe, but it still puts pressures on the health system.”