The Prime Minister will not introduce further measures because officials believe Omicron data indicates they are not yet necessary. Instead, Mr Johnson has ordered a major crisis plan and tasked ministers to work around the clock to test preparations for a possible worst-case scenario. The PM’s contingency planning is being led by Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is chairing regular meetings with fellow ministers to closely monitor the impact of Omicron on workforces and supply chains, as well as schools.
The Cabinet Office said that public sector leaders have been asked to test plans against worst-case scenarios of workforce absences of 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 25 percent. Mr Barclay said: “The Government has been meeting over the Christmas period to prepare for every eventuality.
“Obviously, we have seen significant absences during the period prior to this, but it’s important that those contingency plans are refreshed and that we take measures to mitigate those impacts.”
Mr Barclay insisted there are no plans to introduce further restrictions on the public, despite rising infections. He added: “Of course, we keep the data under review, but we’ve seen significant behaviour change as a result of Plan B.
“The widespread use of testing is an illustration of the fact that the British public are taking sensible steps to keep themselves safe, to keep their friends and family safe. That’s why there has been such a demand for testing in recent weeks. So that, combined with the booster programme, is the key way as a country we will avoid the need for further measures.
“As people return to work following the Christmas break, the high transmissibility levels of Omicron mean businesses and public services will face disruption in the coming weeks, particularly from higher than normal staff absence.
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 who are best placed to operationally manage their workforces. The best way to combat Omicron is to get boosted and I encourage anyone who is eligible to get boosted now.”
With many people working from home, it is understood the Prime Minister’s main focus is on protecting the NHS and schools. Official figures show that 110,000 NHS staff were off sick on New Year’s Eve, with almost 50,000 because of Covid.
And UK Covid infections show no sign of slowing, having jumped by almost 15 percent last week, according to the latest figures. Department of Health data revealed a further 137,583 Covid cases in its daily update, down almost 25,000 from the previous day’s 162,572. It was the 12th day in a row that cases have been above the 100,000 mark as the country moves out of the festive season.
However, the latest data shows the number of Covid-related deaths has decreased by 23 percent in another indication that Omicron is less severe than previous variants and that the booster programme is working. Some 73 deaths were reported yesterday. Data from London suggests fewer Covid patients are requiring ventilation in hospital in a sign that Omicron is leading to less severe disease.
While the number of Covid patients in London hospitals increased from around 1,000 at the end of November to close to 3,000 by New Year’s Eve, the number in mechanical ventilation beds only increased from 175 to around 225. Experts said the positive London data reflected wider evidence that Omicron was leading to less severe outcomes for those infected.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “The lower rate of mechanical ventilation bed occupancy seems to be consistent across multiple European countries. There was also data from South Africa that showed that people admitted to hospital with Omicron were still somewhat less likely to have a particularly bad outcome, such as dying or being admitted to ITU.
“In terms of pressure on the NHS, a patient on an ITU bed takes up a lot more medical and nursing time than patients on an open ward. So the fact that mechanical ventilator bed occupancy is not yet going up is certainly a hopeful sign.”
But Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, has warned “the next few days are crucial”. Last night, hospitals across Lincolnshire declared a critical incident due to “extreme and unprecedented” staff shortages.
In a leaked internal document, the United Lincolnshire Health Trust said: “An internal critical incident was declared late yesterday and continues into today, due to extreme and unprecedented workforce shortages meaning that we are unable to maintain safe staffing levels. This is resulting in compromised care across our hospitals, and an inability to maintain a key number of pathways, including those around stroke and cardiac care.”
There are fears that the already under pressure health service could buckle if staff absences hit 25 percent. Last month, the Government urged schools to ask former teachers to temporarily return to the classroom to help ease staffing shortages.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said yesterday: “I have asked former teachers who have either left the profession or retired to come forward to temporarily support workforces for the new term. I know many have stepped forward and it’s this Blitz spirit that will be essential in turning the tide on Covid.”
In an effort to prevent a new “pingdemic” of millions of Britons being forced to isolate, the Government introduced daily testing to prevent the widespread need for self-isolation where people do not test positive.
And the isolation period for those infected has been reduced from 10 days to seven days with two negative tests. Some have called for a US-style self-isolation system to be introduced, where people only have to quarantine for five days. But the UK Health Security Agency said doing so would be counterproductive and could actually worsen staff shortages if it led to more people being infected.