Boris Johnson said on Tuesday he believed England could ride out the Omicron wave of coronavirus infections without the need “to shut down our country once again”, offering a new year boost for business.

The prime minister admitted that hospitals were on a “war footing”, but he said a mixture of England’s existing Covid-19 restrictions and the booster vaccine campaign would keep the economy open.

The prime minister’s bullish mood has reassured Conservative MPs, scores of whom oppose any further restrictions to tackle the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Johnson told a Downing Street press conference: “I would say we have a very good chance of getting through the Omicron wave without the need for further restrictions and without the need, certainly, for a lockdown.”

But he said people would be “profoundly wrong” to think the fight with Covid was over, adding that some hospitals already felt “at least temporarily overwhelmed”.

He confirmed a record of almost 219,000 Covid-19 cases across the UK in the latest 24-hour period, although the figures partly reflected some delay in collating data over the Christmas holiday period.

Johnson also announced that about 100,000 critical workers, including those in food processing, transport and border control, would be given daily Covid tests to curb the spread of coronavirus to colleagues.

At least six NHS hospital trusts in England have declared a critical incident in recent days in response to strain from spiralling staff shortages and mounting Covid admissions.

Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust and Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Wiltshire are among those affected.

Johnson’s cabinet is on Wednesday expected to endorse his proposal that England should continue with its so-called Plan B restrictions: work from home guidance, mask wearing in public places and Covid passes for mass events.

His stance will avoid the possibility of a cabinet mutiny — ministers led by chancellor Rishi Sunak oppose new restrictions unless compelling new data comes to light — and the prospect of a massive Tory rebellion in parliament.

Almost 100 Tory MPs voted against Johnson’s limited Covid restrictions before Christmas, and some return to Westminster on Wednesday in a much better frame of mind.

Theresa Villiers, a former cabinet minister, messaged the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs: “Not locking down seems to have coincided with an improvement in the polls. Who knew?”

Although Johnson’s decision not to go beyond Plan B was driven partly by a fear of warfare with his own party, some MPs were prepared to give him credit for keeping England largely open over Christmas.

One former Conservative minister said: “I’m sure there are some — either within cabinet or on the backbenches — who will try to take some glory but he’s the prime minister, he ultimately made the decision and he gets the credit.”

Other Tory MPs claimed Johnson had reluctantly been forced to yield to pressure from his own side for no further restrictions, and that his leadership was still under pressure.

Even if Johnson navigates the Omicron surge, he still has to deal with a crisis over the cost of living and an inquiry into media reports about parties in Downing Street amid Covid restrictions in 2020.

Johnson admitted that the Omicron wave had put pressure on the NHS; there are 15,000 people now in England’s hospitals with Covid. But although numbers are rising, they are less than half the peak recorded in January last year.

He said unvaccinated people were putting the NHS under strain: 90 per cent of people in intensive care units with Covid had not had a booster, and 60 per cent had not received a single jab.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said that while in London Omicron might be levelling off among younger people, Covid was now “moving up the age range” to a more vulnerable cohort.

He added that as cases increased in the coming weeks, the NHS would be badly hit by staff shortages and that Covid testing infrastructure would be “incredibly stretched”.

Vallance said in future he expected to see annual Covid vaccinations being administered — like flu jabs — as the disease became endemic in society.

Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne

Source: This post first appeared on Duk News

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