Soaring Omicron cases and test kit shortages have left Britain in turmoil but Boris Johnson is adamant the Covid strain is mild and the country should stick to Plan B.
Despite insistence there is “nothing in the data” to suggest England’s restrictions should be tightened, ministers are now scrambling to draw up emergency plans to reduce disruption to hospitals, schools, the hospitality sector and social care.
It comes as the rampant wave of infections could leave 1.4million public sector workers absent as people welcome the New Year.
Sector leaders have been told to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to 25% absences.
Sage expert Professor Stephen Reicher told the Mirror we are set to face a “real problem in January” because of festive gatherings.
He added: “We wouldn’t be facing such disruption if we had measures in place.”
The latest figures show more than 1.1million people had a confirmed positive Covid test result between December 27 and January 2, a 43 percent increase from the previous week – including an unprecedented 162,572 cases on New Year’s Day.
Pressures on NHS staff due to illness
AFP via Getty Images)
As people prepared to welcome the New Year, nearly one in 10 NHS staff were off work, with 50,000 of them at home either sick or self-isolating.
The number of hospital workers absent due to the virus soared by 31% in a week. A total of 24,632 staff members were off on Boxing Day, compared with 18,829 a week earlier.
The UK Health Security Agency warned: “In some settings, such as hospitals, it could worsen shortages if it led to more people being infected.”
The NHS is setting up Covid “surge hubs” at hospitals across England, including St George’s in Tooting, South London, as coronavirus admissions in England hit a one-year high.
On a visit to a vaccination centre in Stoke Mandeville, the Prime Minister pledged to “make sure that we look after our NHS any way that we can”.
He warned “there’s no question Omicron continues to surge through the country” and he added: “I think we’ve got to recognise that the pressure on our NHS, on our hospitals, is going to be considerable in the course of the next couple of weeks, and maybe more.”
Hospitals declaring emergencies
Hospitals across Lincolnshire last night declared a “critical incident” over “extreme and unprecedented” staff shortages.
The United Lincolnshire Hospital Trust said it is “unable to maintain safe staffing levels” leading to “compromised care” across its sites.
The trust’s medical director Dr Colin Farquharson said: “As a result of significant staffing pressures due to absence related to Covid-19, we are having to take additional steps to maintain services.”
While Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said “a number of trusts across country have declared internal critical incidents over the last few days”.
Joe Harrison, the chief executive of Milton Keynes University Hospital said his site was not yet declaring a critical incident but said on Twitter he expected the “very pressured” situation to get worse before it got better.
Rail services being cancelled
Nearly a third of rail services have been axed at some stations in recent days, after as many as one in 10 staff members called in sick with illnesses, including Covid, according to The Rail Delivery Group.
Rail firms across the country have been removing hundreds of trains from their timetables in recent weeks as the Omicron isolation staffing crisis deepens.
A total of 23 UK train companies from Southern to Merseyrail and Great Western Railway to Northern have either already reduced services or are set to in the coming days due to virus staff shortages.
Operator Southern announced no trains will run into or from London Victoria, Britain’s second busiest station, until January 10 due to high levels of “coronavirus isolation and sickness” among staff.
Meanwhile, ScotRail said nine routes in and out of Glasgow’s main two stations will be on a reduced timetable along with three routes to and from Edinburgh Waverley until at least January 28.
Others impacted include East Midlands Railway, Thameslink, Avanti West Coast, Greater Anglia, Hull Trains, London Northwestern Railway, Great Northern, Thameslink and TransPennine Express.
Brits unable to get Covid tests
The Government refused to bring in restrictions for England during the festive period despite the rapid spread of the Omicron, and instead, people were urged to take a test before socialising.
Thousands of Brits have scrambled to find a lateral flow testing kit in recent weeks, but were unable to due to a shortage.
It is claimed Downing Street is relying on lateral flow testing kits from China because British manufacturers have not been cleared for use in the UK.
Reports suggest that there is only one British manufacturer that has produced a rapid test which meets UK requirements.
This is despite millions of pounds being injected into creating a world-leading testing programme in the UK.
Warnings over shortage of teachers in schools due to sickness
Schools are being urged to consider contingency plans to deal with teacher absences when they return from the Christmas holidays this week.
As a result, schoolchildren could be forced to return to online learning.
According to insiders, ministers fear too many teachers will be off sick for all schools to begin the term as normal and back up plans to homeschool some children may be triggered.
One Whitehall source told the Mirror: “We are just being practical. We are trying to figure out the best way to keep children in schools.
“If all of those aren’t possible, then some year groups or classes may have to go online but we are hoping this will be for literally only days.”
The Government has already announced secondary school pupils would be asked to wear masks in classrooms again, in a move Mr Johnson said he wasn’t happy with but was necessary.
Earlier, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi confirmed he had told headteachers to consider merging classes or sending groups of children home if the number of school staff off work due to Covid reaches critical levels.
Latest Covid data
Andy Commins / Daily Mirror)
More than 1.1million people had a confirmed positive Covid test result between December 27 and January 2, a 43 percent increase from the previous week.
England logged an unprecedented 162,572 new cases on New Year’s Day.
There were 319 patients admitted to hospital in London on December 31, a 14 per cent rise on the same day a week before, and 450 on 30 December which is a 15 per cent rise week-on-week.
On Monday, the UK’s daily Covid cases increased by 157,758 – a rise of 45 per cent in just one week.
The Government’s current ‘plan B is fine’ position
Cabinet minister Steve Barclay is leading the Government’s response to manage absences in the public sector.
Mr Barclay is chairing regular meetings as Plan B restrictions will be reviewed on Wednesday.
He said: “We have been working through the Christmas period to prepare where possible for this, with all departments liaising closely with public and private sector leaders.”
The Government rejected calls to slash the Covid isolation period from seven to five days because infection rates are still high.
The Cabinet Office has claimed that, so far, disruption caused by Omicron has been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”.
Health minister Ed Argar insisted there is “nothing new” in the latest Covid data to prompt new restrictions.
“We need cool, calm heads,” he said. “Restrictions or curbs must be the absolute last resort.”
Mr Johnson said the country must “stick to Plan B” and Omicron is “plainly milder”.
He said: “So, number one, continue with Plan B, make sure that people take it seriously, do what we can to stop the spread, use the Plan B measures, work from home if you can, wear a mask on public transport… take a test before going out to meet people you don’t normally meet, think about the the requirements under Plan B, but also get the boost.”