Further restrictions triggered by COVID must be an “absolute last resort” and the UK will now have to “live alongside” the virus in 2022, Sajid Javid has said.
The health secretary has said the wave of Omicron infections will “test the limit of finite NHS capacity even more than a typical winter”, with reports suggesting a return to the work from home order in England could be installed in January to halt the spread of the variant.
On Friday, government figures showed a further 189,846 confirmed COVID cases – another new record for daily reported cases.
But the actual number of daily cases could be closer to half a million amid an “unprecedented wave” of infections, according to a government adviser.
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Mr Javid, writing in the Daily Mail, said England “welcomed in 2022 with some of the least restrictive measures in Europe”.
He said: “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.
“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.”
He added that it was “inevitable that we will still see a big increase” in COVID patients over the next month, warning that the pandemic is “still far from over”.
Hospital admissions in England stand at their highest since January 2021 – with 2,370 COVID patients in hospitals on 29 December, up 90% week-on-week.
It comes after the Daily Telegraph reported that work from home directives – part of England’s Plan B measures to tackle Omicron – could be set to roll on for much of January.
The restrictions, brought in last month, are set to expire on or close to Tuesday.
Boris Johnson had initially said he wanted the measures lifted “no later than early January and possibly before”.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University statistician and government adviser, said the UK’s daily COVID cases could be closer to 500,000 due to an overstretched testing regime and reinfections not being counted in data.
He told the BBC: “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.
“Things will get worse but it will be nothing like the previous waves.