Britain’s daily Covid cases hit a new record high of 218,000 today, according to official figures released just moments before Boris Johnson held a 5pm Downing Street press conference.
Today’s new infection number represents a 58 per cent rise compared to last week but includes several days of backlogged cases in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Hospitalisations also continued to rise today with England recording 1,819 on January 1, the latest date with data, marking a 42 per cent rise on the previous week.
But the statistics do not differentiate between patients that were admitted primarily for Covid and those who were admitted for a different illness and tested positive after admission.
So-called ‘incidental’ admissions now make up about a third of all Covid inpatients, and fewer patients primarily sick with Covid are needing to be hooked up to ventilators.
Despite the rising statistics, the Prime Minister did not expected to announce any further curbs tonight and instead encouraged more people to come forward for their booster jabs.
Ministers have taken confidence from the fact that hospital admissions already appear to be falling in Omicron hotspot London, which is two weeks ahead of the rest of the country in its outbreak. There were 347 admissions in the capital on New Year’s Day, down 7 per cent.
But Mr Johnson — who was tonight joined by his chief scientists Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance — is facing growing calls to end the Omicron self-isolation crisis that threatens to paralyse the country.
There is anger among Conservative backbenchers and business leaders that the nation is being ground to a halt by a variant that causes little or no symptoms for the overwhelming majority.
Tory MP Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline the country was in the midst of a ‘semi-lockdown’ with 1million Britons currently isolating after catching Covid as he called for the PM to slash the quarantine period to five days like the US and France. He said it could be ‘the answer’ to England’s self-isolation misery.
‘We’re almost facing a semi-lockdown because of people being off work who are perfectly well. You couldn’t make that up,’ he said. ‘The US must have done a lot of work on it… and they have come up with five days as the answer. Perhaps it is.’
Iceland boss Richard Walker said 1,700 of his employees were now isolating after absences nearly doubled in the past week. He tweeted it ‘would be very helpful to business if the isolation period was cut.’
It came as ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson — an influential No10 adviser whose modelling has bounced the country into previous lockdowns — claimed cases are plateauing in Omicron hotspot London and could start to fall nationally in as little as a week.
There is now an acceptance that Omicron is unlikely to overwhelm the NHS directly, however the sheer volume of people testing positive is putting strain on vital services and businesses.
Train and bin collection services have been scaled back amid soaring absences and pupils were sent home on their first day back today after testing positive. And half a dozen NHS trusts across England have declared ‘critical incidents’, warning they may be unable to deliver vital care to patients in the coming weeks because so many staff are off.
Ministers have been told to draw up plans to use the Army to stop the New Year return to work descending into chaos, with a million people testing positive every week.
Current rules in England mean anyone who tests positive has to isolate for seven days and can release if they test negative on two lateral flows, after cutting the period from 10 days earlier this month. No10 has so far resisted calls from a growing number of experts and politicians to go to five days but studies show most people are not infectious beyond that point.
Tory MP Mark Francois told MailOnline that the answer to the staffing crisis caused by Omicron was not to impose more restrictions, like some have suggested.
‘Although this is a very challenging situation we cannot risk throwing the economy into reverse every time we discover a new variant,’ he said.
‘We do have a world class vaccination programme and we are going to have to learn to live with this virus rather than have it dominate our lives for years to come.’
In other developments today:
- Boris Johnson is meeting ministers to take stock after declaring that the government will stick to existing restrictions, while warning it is ‘folly’ to think the pandemic is over;
- The PM has rejected calls to cut the Covid isolation period again to five days, saying doing so could make the staffing crisis even worse;
- Vaccines minister Maggie Throup has played down concerns about a fall in the numbers getting booster jabs suggesting it will rise again after the festive period;
- Hospital admissions for Covid in London fell for the first time since before Omicron took off, spurring hopes that the worst of the wave may have peaked;
- Britons shouldn’t be offered a fourth Covid jab until there is more evidence, according to the head of the country’s vaccine body, who warned dishing out vaccines every six months was ‘not sustainable’;
- Pre-return Covid international travel tests are expected to be scrapped tomorrow.
The empty concourse at Victoria train station, central London, today as rail passengers are hit by disruption on the first working day of the year in England and Wales due to a combination of faults and coronavirus-related staff shortages
The West Park recycling centre in Long Eaton has seen dozens of fly tippers litter the floor with waste as people desperately tried to empty their homes of leftover materials following the festive period over New Year’s weekend
A person walks past Christmas trees discarded on the pavement, in west London, Britain, January 3, 2022. Many people are simply throwing their Christmas trees outside to rot
Boris Johnson (pictured being driven back to Downing Street this morning) will hold a press conference at 5pm as he faces growing pressure to end the Omicron self-isolation crisis that threatens to paralyse the economy and wreak havoc on vital services
Road congestion levels in London were at 22 per cent in the 8am to 9am slot this morning (far right) according to TomTom
Chaos on the trains at the start of 2022
Disruption this morning, not related to staffing issues
• Southeastern: Disruption to services through Slade Green station after a blown rail joint was discovered, with no trains running on the Woolwich line away from London
• London Overground: Trains unable to run between Clapham Junction and Surrey Quays due to a fault on a service
• CrossCountry / LNER / TransPennine Express: Problem under investigation between Darlington and York resulting in disruption to trains
• Merseyrail: Power supply problem at Kirkby is disrupting services between Liverpool Central and Kirkby
Covid-related staff shortages affecting train services
• Avanti West Coast: Says it is ‘doing everything we can to run our full timetable but there may be some short notice cancellations’. All peak restrictions removed until January 4.
• c2c: Normal service.
• Caledonian Sleeper: Normal service.
• Chiltern Railways: Operator warns it ‘may have to make some short notice changes to our timetable’ because of the ‘impact of Covid-19 on our train crews’
• CrossCountry: Removed around 50 trains from its timetables until January 8, and warns of disruption ‘until further notice’. Tells passengers to avoid travelling on New Year’s Eve due to RMT strike.
• East Midlands Railway: Revised timetable due to a ‘high level of staff sickness including drivers and train crew’. Some services being replaced by buses.
• Eurostar: Normal service.
• Gatwick Express: No services ‘until further notice’ because of the ‘ongoing effect of coronavirus isolation and sickness’.
• Grand Central: Normal service.
• Great Northern: Reduced service on all routes ‘until further notice’ because of the ‘significant ongoing impact of coronavirus, particularly in terms of staff sickness’.
• Great Western Railway: Cancellations because of ‘rising numbers of staff unavailable to work due to self-isolation requirements’ .
• Greater Anglia: Some services removed from timetable ‘due to falling passenger numbers and ‘to plan for our staff being affected by the Omicron variant’.
• Heathrow Express: Normal service.
• Hull Trains: A temporary timetable will operate until February 12 to ‘minimise disruption’.
• LNER: Reduced timetable up until at least January 7 ‘due to a shortage of train crew as a result of an increase in the number of staff self-isolating with Covid-19’.
• London Northwestern Railway: Services are ‘subject to cancellation or alteration’ due to a shortage of train drivers.
• Lumo: Normal service.
• Merseyrail: Some trains will be cancelled on certain lines from ‘today until further notice’ because of the ‘impact of Covid-19 and other sickness affecting staff availability’.
• Northern: Operating ‘several amended timetables’ because of ‘Covid and its impact on the availability of our train crew’.
• ScotRail: It is ‘being forced to bring in a temporary timetable’ until January 28 ‘as we continue to see colleagues off sick because of Covid-19’.
• South Western Railway: Services subject to ‘short-term alterations’ due to the ‘impact of the Omicron variant on staff numbers’ with new timetable coming in January 17.
• Southeastern: Warns that services may change at short notice if there ‘may be occasions when our staff are sick or self-isolating due to Covid-19’.
• Southern: Cancels a raft of services and its hub at London Victoria station will stay closed until January 10 ‘owing to the significant ongoing impact of coronavirus’.
• Stansted Express: Half-hourly service running.
• Thameslink: Reduced service on all routes ‘until further notice’ because of the ‘significant ongoing impact of coronavirus, particularly in terms of staff sickness’.
• TransPennine Express: Services may be cancelled at short notice ‘due to lack of available staff’.
• Transport for London: Mostly normal service, but delays in recent days on Bakerloo and Metropolitan lines due to cancellations.
• Transport for Greater Manchester: Reduced Metrolink services ‘due to the increasing impact of Covid-19 on tram driver staffing levels’.
• Transport for Wales: ‘Emergency timetable’ to ‘prepare for an expected rise in staff shortages due to the emergence of the Omicron variant’.
• West Midlands Railway: Some trains ‘may be cancelled at short notice’ because ‘many colleagues are currently unable to attend work’.
Professor Ferguson, an epidemiologist who sits on SAGE, said: ‘I think I’m cautiously optimistic that infection rates in London in that key 18-50 age group, which has been driving the Omicron epidemic, may possibly have plateaued, it’s too early to say whether they’re going down yet.’
He added: ‘I would say that with an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week, maybe already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to three weeks.
‘Whether they then drop precipitously or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with Delta back in July – of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau – remains to be seen, it’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of open schools again will be.’
Discussing the current Omicron outbreak, Professor Ferguson — nicknamed ‘Prof Lockdown’ for his grim modelling that spooked ministers into introducing draconian curbs last spring — said the variant had not had much time to infect pupils before schools shut for the Christmas break, and a rise in cases is now expected.
‘We expect to now see quite high infection levels – of mild infection I should emphasise – in school-aged children.’
He added that the ‘good news’ about Omicron is that ‘it is certainly less severe’ than previous variants of Covid and that has helped keep hospital numbers down compared with previous peaks.
‘And then the vaccines – as we always expected they would – are holding up against severe disease and against severe outcomes well.
‘That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be as, as the Prime Minister said, a difficult few weeks for the NHS.’
Ministers have vowed to keep schools open this term, saying children’s education has already suffered enough to protect others.
Schools can stagger starting days but all pupils should be back by Monday next week.
Students have been told to be tested between two to three times per week either at on-site facilities at their school or by testing themselves at home.
Secondary school students must also wear masks in the classroom.
Parents are on edge after their children suffered extraordinary disruption to their education since the pandemic began in March 2020, spending months at home learning online.
Experts have said that for this generation of British children, their academic progress has gone backward in almost all cases due to schools being shut.
And it has also caused a growing inequality between state and private school pupils, who received a higher standard of online learning.
School leaders are unsure how many teachers will turn up for work this week while they wait for staff to email in Covid test results.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of heads’ union ASCL, told The Guardian: ‘Schools and colleges desperately want to be able to maintain face-to-face teaching on a consistent basis.
‘But the reality is that if large numbers of staff are absent this will cause disruption, which may include having to send home classes or year groups for short periods of time to learn remotely.’
Mr Zahawi told BBC Breakfast yesterday that teacher shortages were likely to be worse than before Christmas. He admitted that some pupils might have to learn remotely.
The Department for Education suggested combining classes and said infected teachers could deliver lessons from home via streaming to supervised classrooms.
Its dedicated remote learning resource, Oak National Academy, said it was ‘ready for increased demand’.
Caroline Derbyshire, head of Saffron Walden County High School in Essex, said: ‘Staff shortages will be a factor and there will be schools in particular parts of the country where rates have been extremely high.
‘You’ve suddenly got the inability to run a year group – that’s when you start having either year groups or whole parts of schools having to go online.’
Mr Johnson said yesterday he was not happy about the return of masks and the precaution would be axed as soon as possible, but it was necessary for the moment.
The Government is still asking people to work from home if they can.
The Cabinet Office said that, so far, disruption caused by Omicron had been controlled in ‘most parts of the public sector’.
But it said leaders had been asked to test plans against 10, 20 and 25 per cent workforce absence rates.
Councils across the UK are already having to redistribute staff between essential services to keep everything running, however.
Ministers in departments that oversee critical infrastructure and supply chains have been told to prepare plans in case staff shortages require the help of the armed forces.
Help is requested through a process known as Military Aid to the Civil Authorities — MACA — and officials are keen that efforts are focused as efficiently as possible.
‘We didn’t want different departments relying on the same MACA support,’ a Whitehall insider told the Times, pointing to the possibility that soldiers could be asked to drive ambulances as well as assist Border Force.
A senior government source told MailOnline that the MACA applications were still ‘at the planning stage’.
Rail bosses have warned passengers returning to the office this week to expect last-minute cancellations, more crowded trains and delays caused by engineering works.
Nearly a third of rail services at some stations were axed over Christmas after as many as one in ten staff called in sick.
Operators who have already announced reduced timetables include Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, Greater Anglia, London North Eastern Railway, Northern, TransPennine Express and Transport for Wales.
Operator Southern has announced that no trains will run into or from London Victoria, Britain’s second busiest station, until January 10. This is due to high levels of ‘coronavirus isolation and sickness’ among staff.
It comes after analysis by ontimetrains.co.uk yesterday found passengers at Manchester Airport have been among the worst hit, where 30 per cent of scheduled services were axed on New Year’s Day.
On New Year’s Eve 30 per cent were also cancelled and 26 per cent on December 30.
Further disruption will be caused while Network Rail finishes the last of 370 engineering works projects scheduled over the Christmas and New Year period.
Passengers on the West Coast Mainline face disruption between tomorrow and 12 January while flood protection upgrades are carried out between Milton Keynes and Rugby.
Trains will be diverted via Northampton, adding at least 25 minutes to journeys.
It means London Northwestern Railway will run fewer services between Crewe and London Euston, with passengers needing to change trains at Rugby.
Rubbish bins, recycling containers and bottle banks across the country are overflowing as severe staff shortages brought about by rising Covid cases have decimated council services. (A view of an overflowing recycling point in Ashford, Kent. Picture date: Monday January 3, 2022)
Recycling bins and bottle banks are overflowing with councils unable to arrange collection services due to staff shortages (glass bins pictured in Kent, today, Jan 3)
Overflowing bins at a recycling point in Ashford, Kent, after Christmas are pictured this afternoon
The Christmas tree recycling point on Hove Lawns in Brighton is busy as the festive season comes to an end on Bank Holiday Monday in England (pictured today, Jan 3)
Christmas trees begin to pile up ready for the council to collect them and mulch them down, people discard their trees before twelfth night. Christmas tree recycling, Clayfield Copse, Berkshire, UK – 03 Jan 2022
Dozens of unwanted Christmas trees are pictured discarded on the lawn along Brighton’s seafront today, Bank Holiday Monday
Boris bats away calls for Covid isolation to be slashed to FIVE days
Boris Johnson today batted away pleas for Covid self-isolation to be slashed to five days, warning it could make staff shortages even worse.
Calls have been mounting for the UK to emulate the US by trimming the period again to stop the economy and key services being crippled by absences.
However, the PM insisted that going below the current seven days could have the ‘perverse’ effect of speeding the spread, as three times more people would still be infectious when they return to workplaces.
On a visit to a vaccination centre in Stoke Mandeville today, Mr Johnson urged people to ‘stick to Plan B’ stressing that that Omicron is ‘plainly milder’.
But he cautioned that the health service will be under ‘considerable pressure’ for weeks to come, suggesting staff will be moved to plug gaps.
Asked about the idea of easing isolation rules – already reduced from 10 days as long as people are negative on lateral flow tests on day six and seven – Mr Johnson said: ‘We’ll continue to look at the infectivity periods, but the key thing is we don’t want to be releasing people back into the workplace when they’re still infectious.
‘And the risk is you’d increase the numbers of people going back into the workplace who are infectious by a factor of three. So you might perversely have a negative effect on the workforce if you see what I mean, so that’s the argument we’re looking at.’
How other countries compare to UK’s isolation requirements
The UK is being urged to follow the lead of others and cut Covid isolation requirements down to five days from the current seven. Here are the requirements in the other countries with five day limits:
Americans who test positive for Covid only have to isolate for five days, as long as they have no symptoms. Those who leave isolation must still wear a mask everywhere – even at home around others – for at least five more days, according to official guidance. People who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive can also leave isolation after five days of being alerted.
Greece followed the US lead in halving quarantine for people who test positive. According to new guidance by Greece’s public health agency, people infected with Covid can return to work after five days if they have no or mild symptoms, and must wear high protection masks.
Yesterday, France announced that fully vaccinated people who test positive will only have to isolate for seven days, and can leave quarantine after five days if they show a negative test. People who test positive for the virus, but who are not fully vaccinated, can leave quarantine after seven days if they have a negative test.
Self-isolate for ten days after a positive test or when your symptoms start, although negative tests on days six and seven mean you can leave the house early.
David Josephs, of All Greens, which supplies fruit and vegetables to restaurants, said around 15 per cent of staff had been absent and some of the firm’s outlets might need to close if this worsened.
Meanwhile, councillors in London, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Buckinghamshire have said bin collection services have been scaled back as workers continue to fall sick with the virus, just as families aim to get rid of an abundance of material following the festive season.
Several London boroughs have announced there may be future delays to services, with Manchester and Birmingham City Councils apologising for disrupted collections over the Christmas period.
Chelmsford City Council confirmed 23 members of staff were absent and cancelled three days’ worth of food waste collections, while North Somerset Council said they had been unable to pick up 1,000 recycling bins on New Year’s Eve as crews remain ‘stretched due to staff sickness’.
Stephanos Ioannou, a Conservative councillor in Enfield, said the number of complaints about missed bin collections was roughly double the average for this time of year.
‘I’ve been driving round my ward and seeing bins overflowing and Christmas trees are left outside,’ he said.
‘Over the Christmas period, usually I get on average 30 emails a week on waste services. I checked my inbox yesterday… and had about 50 or 60.’
Gloucester meanwhile has been hit with ‘terrible problems’ as bin collectors work in close-knit teams and quickly pass the virus onto one another, multiplying the number of staff off sick at one time, Liberal Democrat councillor Declan Wilson said.
Mr Wilson said recycling collections were stopped altogether over Christmas, caused by a combination of Covid-related absences and driver shortages.
Several London boroughs have announced there may be future delays to services, with Haringey Council warning the ‘uniquely challenging times’ had impacted their workforce.
Newham Council has temporarily suspended the collection of bulky waste items due to ‘higher than normal levels of staff absence’.
Green food and garden recycling bin collections have been cancelled ‘until further notice’ by Manchester City Council due to the number of staff in isolation.
Residents are being told to put food waste into ‘grey general waste bins’ and store garden waste until normal collections resume.
Meanwhile Birmingham City Council apologised for missed collections over the festive period, saying crews had been affected by Covid in the week leading up to December 30.
Covid-related staff shortages have also had a considerable impact on healthcare, with one in 10 medics off sick on New Year’s Eve.
In recent days the number of NHS workers staying at home for Covid reasons has doubled.
NHS figures show that on December 12, NHS England recorded 12,240 staff absent due to Covid sickness or self-isolation. Two weeks later, on December 26, this had doubled to 24,632, and by New Year’s Eve it had doubled again to almost 50,000 – accounting for nearly half of all staff absences, The Sunday Times reported.
Chris Hopson, chairman of NHS Providers, said staff absences were having a greater impact than during last January’s Covid wave.
He tweeted: ‘Staff flat out, especially given level of staff absences. We will need to ask them to perform flexible heroics again if hospital Covid numbers continue to rise. We can’t keep doing this.’
Despite rising staff absences, there are hopes that the Omicron crisis is plateauing.
Figures are thought to be less reliable due to the festive period, but a further 157,758 cases were reported yesterday — up by 44.6 per cent on the same day last week.
But the number of people dying with the virus saw a 70.6 per cent decrease, with 42 deaths reported compared to 143 on December 27.
And cases in London appear to be heading downwards.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said hospital admissions seem to have ‘perhaps plateaued in London or there may be a second peak after the new year now, but it’s rising across the rest of Britain’.
He told Times Radio that, often, for many hospitals ‘the most pressing element of all’ was the number of staff who are absent due to Covid. He said the issues were compounding ‘long-term failure in terms of workforce planning and resourcing’.
Festive rubbish begins to accumulate at waste points in the town. Some rubbish collection days over Christmas and New Year have been affected due to coronavirus cases (Reading, Berkshire, UK)
Glasgow-based Joe McCauley, culture spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said there had been an ‘increase in reports of bins overflowing’ in recent weeks
An overflowing recycling point in Ashford, Kent, is pictured this afternoon, with plenty of cardboard packaging
Clothes and other materials have been left outside Oxfam bins at an overflowing recycling point in Ashford, Kent, today
This dog bin off in Canford Heath near Poole in Dorset has been ‘overflowing for days’ according to one social media user
Leading Oxford vaccine expert warns giving regular boosters is ‘not sustainable’
Britons shouldn’t be offered a fourth Covid jab until there is more evidence, the head of the country’s vaccine body has claimed.
Sir Andrew Pollard, chairperson of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said giving boosters to people every six months was ‘not sustainable’.
He said future vaccination drives should target the most vulnerable rather than offering top-up doses to all adults.
Germany’s health minister warned a second booster will be required to manage Omicron, while Israel has approved a fourth dose for all over-60s.
The UK last month ordered 114million more Pfizer and Moderna doses which will arrive over the next two years to ‘future-proof’ the vaccination drive, but it is not yet clear how these will be used.
Professor Pollard, who previously insisted booster jabs may not be needed, said: ‘The future must be focusing on the vulnerable and making boosters or treatments available to them to protect them.
In a round of interviews this morning, vaccines minister Maggie Throup admitted she did not know exactly how many hospitals had severe problems with staffing.
Asked about the number of NHS trusts with critical incidents, she told Sky News: ‘I think the critical incidents are announced and then they can be very short-term ones and it’s saying to the other trusts around ‘can we have some extra help, can we have some mutual aid’.
‘Sometimes it’s just a matter of hours that the critical incident is in place for, other times it’s longer, but it’s actually reaching out to the wider NHS to say we have got a problem in this particular area and it’s sometimes quite geographical as well and for different reasons, it can be staff shortages, it could be other reasons.’
She added: ‘To be honest, I haven’t had an update this morning, as we know the (United) Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust declared one yesterday.’
America was the first country to shorten the isolation period, followed by Greece and France.
Professor Tim Spector, who leads the Zoe Covid Study at King’s College London, has described the five-day period as ‘sensible’ as long as the individual has had two negative lateral flow tests.
‘A reduction in isolation days would help many frontline services by allowing low-risk staff to go into work and avoid people staying home unnecessarily,’ Professor Spector said.
But allowing people to stop isolating five days after they experience Covid symptoms could actually spread the virus and worsen NHS staff shortages, the UK Health Security Agency said.
It said that between 10 and 30 per cent of people would still be infectious after five days, compared with 5 per cent under the seven-day rule.
Health minister Ed Argar said the Government had not yet received scientific advice on cutting the isolation period.
Six NHS trusts in England declare critical incidents amid Covid staffing crisis… as health chief claims there’s a ‘politicised attempt’ to downplay situation
Morecambe Bay and United Lincolnshire Hospitals are among the trusts that have signalled they may be unable to deliver vital care to patients in the coming weeks because so many staff are off isolating.
Declaring an incident enables hospitals to get help from other NHS trusts and hospitals and means services can be reprioritised at speed, for example to focus on emergency care.
One in 10 NHS staff nationally are currently isolating with Covid and there are even higher absence rates at individual hospitals — despite the quarantine period being cut from 10 to seven days.
Daily Covid cases have hovered above 100,000 for nearly two weeks straight amid fears the staffing crisis will only get worse and there are growing calls for England to follow the US and France and cut self-isolation to five days.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, claimed there was a ‘politicised attempt’ to downplay the pressure the health service is facing.
Mr Taylor, a chief adviser to Sir Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister, told Times Radio: ‘We’ve got to recognise that in the next few weeks… things are going to be very, very difficult.’
Boris Johnson yesterday ruled out imposing more restrictions ‘for now’, claiming that Omicron was ‘plainly milder’, but said he recognised that the NHS was under ‘considerable’ strain.
The PM is under considerable pressure from his backbench MPs who have slammed calls for more Covid restrictions to protect the NHS from a staffing crisis.
Coronavirus hospitalisations have doubled in the past fortnight to 1,915 daily admissions but there is a growing acceptance that they will remain much lower than previous peaks.
There has been a rise in people testing positive after being admitted for a different reason and those who are primarily sick with Covid are being discharged quicker compared to earlier waves.
NHS bosses have also expressed optimism that hospitalisations in Omicron epicentre London may already be starting to level off after just three weeks.
Morecambe Bay hospital (left) and United Lincolnshire Hospitals (right) are among the trusts that have signalled they may be unable to deliver vital care to patients in the coming weeks due to staffing crises caused by the rapid spread of Omicron
The above graph shows the proportion of Covid patients needing ventilators while Delta was dominant (November) and after Omicron took hold (late December). It shows the proportion has halved, in yet another sign the disease is milder
Boris Johnson faces MORE Covid rule-breaking allegations
Boris Johnson was facing questions last night after allegations emerged that he failed to self-isolate last year after coming into contact with a positive Covid-19 case.
The Prime Minister is alleged to have stood ‘close’ to a videographer, who later tested positive for the virus, in Downing Street during his official New Year’s message on December 31, 2020, sources told The Mirror.
The Downing Street aide, who was not wearing a mask, later informed officials and staff members who were present in the room and they were all asked to self-isolate for ten days – under the official guidance at the time.
However sources have claimed the Prime Minister was not asked to self-isolate.
During the recording last year, the videographer is alleged to have stood ‘face-to-face’ with the PM for around 15 minutes, sources told The Mirror.
It has also been claimed that the pair were less than two metres away from each other.
The contact came just days before the UK entered a third national lockdown as the NHS tried to cope with a rising number of coronavirus cases.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents trusts, told Sky News that approximately half a dozen hospitals across the country have declared critical incidents in the last five days.
He said: ‘It is a sensible, planned thing to do to ensure that trust can carry on providing the services that it needs to provide, particularly the critical and essential services.’
Despite this, Mr Hopson also stressed there while there are some staff shortages within the NHS, they are localised.
There has been a suggestion that up to a quarter of staff could be off work with coronavirus but Mr Hopson does not believe this will be the case.
Hospitals in Lincolnshire declared a staffing emergency over the weekend, which prompted ministers to draw up plans to recruit 20,000 reservists to help ease winter pressures.
Bosses at United Lincolnshire Hospitals warned that so many doctors and nurses were now absent from shifts that patient care was ‘compromised’, especially for stroke and heart patients.
On Sunday, the trust declared a ‘critical incident’, meaning hospital bosses are calling in support from nearby trusts to help manage the crisis.
The trust, which runs four major hospitals in the county, saw 7.5 per cent of its 8,500 employees off sick on Boxing Day, according to the NHS’s latest workforce data which showed around 68,000 medics were absent nationwide.
Morecambe Bay NHS Trust in Lancashire also declared the incident on Monday evening amid rising Covid hospital admissions and staff testing positive for coronavirus.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, public health director for Lancashire County Council, said the county was at ‘the foothills’ of an Omicron wave.
He said: ‘Lancashire is beginning to experience what London did at the beginning of last month and, of course, London is better resourced and the infrastructures are well organised compared to other regions, so we are bracing ourselves for a tsunami of Omicron cases in Lancashire.
Ministers plead for Britons to get their Covid booster vaccines after take-up flatlines ‘with TWO MILLION appointments still available this week’
Britons were today urged to come forward to get their Covid booster vaccines amid fears uptake has stalled over the festive period.
Official data shows the number of people getting boosted fell to just over 100,000 on Sunday, the latest day for which vaccine information is available,
This is compared to highs of over 900,000 before Christmas which saw desperate adults struggle to get appointments.
Whitehall insiders claim up to 2million jab appointments are still available this week.
Asked about the current situation today, vaccine minister Maggie Throup blamed the low take-up on the public holidays.
‘We’ve just been through two weekends of bank holiday and I think that’s quite clear that numbers will change as we move forward,’ she told Times Radio.
She also urged people to come forward for their booster, adding ‘it’s never too late’ to get the vaccine.
‘We are clearly seeing a shift from 20s and 30s and 40-year-olds being affected by Omicron to a clear shift to a more 60-plus age group being affected, and that is what is causing us concern as well as the immediate concern being absence, staff absence, both in the NHS and education – schools are just going to re-open this week.
‘But this is all meaning that we are not able to concentrate on the non-Covid issues, that’s really needing to be addressed immediately as well, so it’s a double challenge we face: not only fighting Covid but all the other pent-up demand and need due to non-Covid issues.’
There are now growing calls among scientists, politicians and business leaders for the self-isolation period to be cut to five days to prevent vital services being forced to shut.
But Matthew Taylor at the NHS Confederation said the NHS did not want staff going back into hospitals with Covid and risk passing it on.
He told Times Radio that reducing the self-isolation period to five days should only be done if the science ‘said it was absolutely safe’.
On the outlook, he said: ‘We should feel some hope and confidence about the medium term, that we hope that we will gradually become more able to live with Covid as the Prime Minister has said, that when Omicron has gone through us that we make it to that stage and the NHS will recover.
‘On the other hand, we’ve got to recognise where we are now, we’ve got to recognise that in the next few weeks at least things are [going to be] very, very difficult.
‘I think that one thing that people in our service find difficult is that it does seem as though there’s a kind of almost politicised attempt to suggest that things aren’t as difficult as they are, that any suggestion that we should sustain the restrictions or whether it’s personal responsibility or policy.
‘And if you’re working in health service, you see the reality, and what you want politicians, what you want people, to be driven by is the data and what’s happening at the front line, and let’s not be in the business of … getting away from the reality of this.’
He said the judgment on restrictions ‘needs to be driven by the data and what’s in the best interests of the country’, adding: ‘It shouldn’t be driven by a kind of political virility symbolism, where the sooner we can be free, the better it is, regardless of the effects. Let’s carry on being driven by the data.’
He said the data would not become clearer until the end of this week or the start of next week.
Mr Taylor did admit that hospital admissions seem to have ‘perhaps plateaued in London or there may be a second peak after the new year now, but it’s rising across the rest of Britain’.
He admitted that ‘the most pressing element of all’ was the number of staff who are absent due to Covid.
He said that even without Covid, the NHS is 100,000 staff short, ‘so we have a long-term failure in terms of workforce planning and resourcing’.
He added: ‘The problem with staff absence is that it is unpredictable and lumpy in the sense that you don’t know where somebody is going to get sick and, when somebody does get sick, it’s then more likely that other people in that team will get sick and hospitals and healthcare systems are complex, they’re inter-dependent, so … if you lose paramedics then the ambulance can’t go out, and if ambulances can’t go out then that means there’s more pressure on other services.
‘So, those interdependencies and the unpredictability of staff absence means NHS leaders having to work around the clock just thinking about how they can deploy their resources best to deal with the most urgent and pressing needs.
‘Even using all their imagination and creativity, it is becoming almost impossible, which is why we see hospitals declaring critical incidents.’
Spot the lockdown: Roads are barely busier than LAST January when country was shutdown and train stations are quiet as 1m are forced to self-isolate on first day back to work
Britain appeared to be in a self-imposed lockdown this morning with roads barely busier than the same day last year – when the third national lockdown came into force – despite today being the first working day of 2022.
Road congestion in London was at 22 per cent between 8am and 9am this morning according to TomTom, which was only slightly higher than January 4, 2021 when the figure for the same time period was 19 per cent.
Major railway stations in the capital including Victoria, Waterloo and London Bridge looked very quiet while there were also few commuters to be seen on many Underground trains during the morning rush hour.
It comes as pressure mounted on the Government to allow the millions of people who have caught the milder but more contagious Omicron variant to get back to work more quickly and so keep essential services going.
A move requiring people to stay indoors for five days has now been adopted by the US, Greece and France – and an expert from King’s College London has now said this could be mirrored in Britain too, because the data is suggesting cases were now falling in London while there had been no recent surge in deaths as predicted.
Also today Professor Neil Ferguson said he believes that cases could be starting to plateau in London – the first part of Britain to fall victim to the variant, which a plethora of studies have shown is milder than previous strains.
Many employees are following Government guidance to work from home if possible, and the low number of commuters has been exacerbated by nearly 1.2million people testing positive for Covid-19 over the past week.
It comes one year to the day that Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered people to ‘stay at home’ as he officially put England into its third lockdown after weeks of tough Tier 4 restrictions for many areas including the capital.
Meanwhile rail passengers were hit by disruption on the first working day of the year in England and Wales today due to a combination of faults and Covid-related staff shortages as people returned to the office.
And children returning to school risked being turned away at the gates if their teachers test positive for the virus, with headteachers fearing up to a quarter of their staff could be struck down in the coming weeks.
Employees returning to the office have also been warned of last-minute rail cancellations, and businesses said they may have to shut their doors or operate shorter hours due to so many staff being in quarantine.
NHS bosses said for many hospitals the biggest challenge was ‘rising staff absences’, rather than the number of patients with Covid. Latest data showed 1,189,985 people tested positive for Covid in the seven days to yesterday.
LONDON VICTORIA — The empty concourse at London Victoria station at about 9am with no Southern trains calling today
LONDON WATERLOO — Commuters at Waterloo at about 9am today on the first day back to work after the Christmas break
LONDON OVERGROUND – Passengers take the Overground to work at about 7am today on a service via South East London
CANADA WATER — An empty escalator at Canada Water railway station in South East London at about 7am this morning
DAILY MAIL COMMENT: Could Omicron be reaching its peak?
Whisper it softly, but could it be that the Omicron variant is reaching its peak?
In London, where it’s been most rife, cases have hit a plateau, according to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi and his message has been reinforced by NHS Providers boss Chris Hopson.
Hospital admissions appear to be falling in the capital, with fewer patients needing critical care, and UK death rates haven’t reached anything like the numbers feared.
Three weeks ago, scientists forecast there could be up to 5,000 fatalities a day. Last week there was an average of 140. Yesterday there were 42.
This doesn’t mean the crisis is over. Some parts of the country are at an earlier stage with Omicron and infections are still rising.
Even in London, hospitalisation rates remain a serious cause for concern and the full impact of Christmas and New Year gatherings is not yet apparent.
But the fact hospitals are generally coping vindicates Boris Johnson’s decision to hold out against further lockdown measures.
The biggest problem now, though, for hospitals, public transport, businesses and schools, is the surge in employee absences owing to so many testing positive.
An NHS trust in Lincolnshire has declared a ‘critical incident’, not because of a rush of patients, but because so many staff were isolating – many with minor symptoms. By some estimates 25 per cent of Britain’s workforce will be on the sick this week.
But here’s the good news. In London hospitals, absences have been falling since December 22. If the pattern is replicated elsewhere, we could be through this latest crisis far more quickly than anyone (least of all gloomy Sage scientists) imagined.
Yesterday, Mr Johnson confirmed there was no need for further restrictions in the next week. If the good news keeps rolling in, there will surely be no need for them at all.
Also today, no London Overground trains could run between Clapham Junction and Surrey Quays due to a train fault, while Merseyrail services were suspended between Kirkdale and Kirkby following a power supply problem.
And a ‘problem under investigation’ between Darlington and York was causing disruption between the two stations, which was affecting CrossCountry, London North Eastern Railway and TransPennine Express services.
Elsewhere urgent repairs were carried out to replace part of the signalling system at Slade Green in South East London after an electrical fault, meaning the line towards Dartford was blocked, affecting Southeastern trains.
Network Rail sent technicians to Lewisham to fix a new set of points which ‘worked fine all night in testing and of course has gone wrong now’. It caused disruption to Southeastern on one of the main lines into the capital.
Meanwhile road congestion levels in London were at 22 per cent in the 8am to 9am slot this morning according to TomTom, which was the highest figure for that time period since Friday, December 17 when it was at 41 per cent.
However, the level is significantly down from Monday, December 13 – the first day when working from home guidance was reintroduced – which saw a level of 60 per cent, almost three times higher than today.
As of 9am today, there were 96 jams covering a total of 25 miles. The congestion level today was also less than a third of the 2019 average (67 per cent) and less than half of the 2020 average (53 per cent) for the time of day.
Rail journeys across Britain were also being hit by many operators using reduced timetables in a bid to improve reliability after weeks of short-notice cancellations due to staff shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
ScotRail implemented a temporary weekday timetable yesterday as the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has resulted in a ‘large number of absences’.
More than 150 daily services have been cut, including on routes such as Glasgow to Edinburgh via Airdrie/Bathgate; Glasgow Central to Lanark; Edinburgh to North Berwick; and Edinburgh to Tweedbank.
Other examples include Southern not serving London Victoria until January 10, while CrossCountry has removed around 50 daily trains from its timetables until next week.
Demand for rail travel is at around 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, which is partly due to the guidance for people to work from home. The first working day of the year in Scotland is tomorrow.
It comes as Boris Johnson claimed yesterday that cutting isolation times further for people with Covid would worsen the staffing crisis gripping Britain.
The Prime Minister resisted mounting pressure to allow the huge numbers of people who have caught the mild Omicron variant to get back to work more quickly and so keep essential services going.
He said only requiring people to stay indoors for five days – a move now adopted by the US, Greece and France – would in fact mean more employees going off sick, as they risked catching Covid from someone who had rushed back to the office while still infectious.
LONDON WATERLOO (JANUARY 4, 2021) — An empty ticket barrier area at London Waterloo on the Underground last year
JUBILEE LINE (JANUARY 4, 2021) — A quiet Jubilee line on the London Underground network on the same day last year
WATERLOO ROAD (JANUARY 4, 2021) — Waterloo Road outside Waterloo train station is very quiet on the same day last year
LONDON EUSTON: Rail passengers sit down at London Euston station at about 9.15am this morning as people return to work
NORTHERN LINE: Commuters sit on a Northern line train heading into Central London at about 8am this morning
LONDON BRIDGE: A small number of commuters walk through London Bridge Jubilee line station at about 7am this morning
FINCHLEY CENTRAL: Empty platforms at Finchley Central Underground station on the Northern line at about 8am today
EUSTON ROAD — A very quiet Euston Road outside King’s Cross railway station in London at about 9.15am this morning
A4200 — A very quiet A4200 leading to Euston Road in Central London at about 9.15am this morning, near Euston station
A1(M) — A quiet-looking A1(M) motorway in North London at about 7am this morning as some people head back into the office
BARNET — The Barnet High Road in North London also looks quiet this morning shortly before 8am today
Mr Johnson said yesterday: ‘We’ll continue to look at the infectivity periods. But the key thing is we don’t want to be releasing people back into the workplace when they’re still infectious.
‘And the risk is you increase the numbers of people going back into the workplace are infectious by a factor of three. So you might perversely have a negative effect on the workforce.’
He also claimed that the current seven-day isolation period in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is ‘very close’ to five days in any case because people can leave their homes ‘just one minute past midnight on the day that you test negative’.
Professor Tim Spector, who leads King’s College London’s Zoe Covid symptoms study, said last night that the quarantine limit could safely be reduced as the data suggested cases were now falling in London while there had been no recent surge in deaths as predicted.
‘The health crisis is in danger of being driven by staff problems due to over-cautious isolation rules. Let’s reduce this to five days,’ he said.
Experts claimed that cutting the isolation period to five days would save the UK economy £300million this month.
The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated that the current rules will cost the country £1billion, equal to 0.5 per cent of monthly GDP.
As well as helping major public sector employers such as the NHS, which had almost one in ten employees off sick on New Year’s Eve, the change to five days would also boost hospitality firms who have lost out on sales over Christmas and in some cases have had to shut their doors because they are so short-staffed.
The effects of the ‘isolation nation’ continued to be felt yesterday with rubbish going uncollected, huge disruption to train services and a dire warning of the looming impact on elderly care.
James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘There are existing pressures that were already there before Christmas – bins, due to a shortage of HGV drivers, that’s certainly been an area of pressure.
‘But our biggest concern is social care, because not only will we potentially see plenty more staff absences, we’re actually going to see more demand as the NHS seeks to discharge more people to hospital.’