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Britain’s daily Covid cases plunged for the 12th day in a row today as the fourth wave continued to collapse and workers headed back to offices in their largest numbers since Omicron took off. 

Another 84,429 tests came back positive for the virus in the past 24 hours, according to Government dashboard data, down around 41 per cent on last week. Daily cases have fallen week-on-week since January 6.

There were also 85 coronavirus deaths registered today in a 10 per cent rise compared to last Monday. Latest hospital data shows there were 2,357 admissions on January 11, virtually unchanged in a week.

In a sign of public confidence in the promising stats, London’s roads were the busiest they have been during the morning rush-hour since the day Boris Johnson confirmed that England would enter Plan B restrictions. 

Congestion data recorded by location services company TomTom found the level in the capital between 8am and 9am this morning was at 69 per cent – the highest it has been for that time period in six weeks since December 8.

The congestion level represents the extra travel time for drivers on average compared to baseline uncongested conditions – so a 69 per cent level means a 30-minute trip will take 21 minutes more than with no traffic.

Today’s figure was also above the 2019 average of 63 per cent and 2020 average of 49 per cent for 8am on a Monday in London – showing there were more cars on the road in the capital today than before the pandemic.  The figure last Monday was 61 per cent, while it was just 2 per cent on Monday, January 3 but this was a bank holiday. 

It comes six weeks after Plan B measures were announced which mandated the wearing of masks in shops and public transport, as well as vaccine passports in nightclubs and large venues. People have also been encouraged to work from home since December 13 – but there is growing hope that most of these restrictions will end a week on Wednesday. However, it is possible that some measures could continue, such as masks on public transport.

Meanwhile Transport for London told MailOnline that up to 10am this morning there were around one million entry and exit taps across the Underground – which is an increase of 8 per cent on last Monday.

On the buses there were 1.2million taps, which was a weekly increase of 4 per cent. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, Tube ridership on weekdays is between 45 and 48 per cent, and weekday bus ridership at 70 per cent.

Commuters wait for a Jubilee line train at London Bridge station on the London Underground this morning

Commuters wait for a Jubilee line train at London Bridge station on the London Underground this morning

People cross London Bridge in cold weather today as commuters go into the office on a Monday morning

People cross London Bridge in cold weather today as commuters go into the office on a Monday morning

People sit on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network this morning as Tube ridership increases week-on-week

People sit on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network this morning as Tube ridership increases week-on-week

TfL said ridership is nearer pre-pandemic levels at weekends – with the Tube then at 60 per cent of levels before Covid, which is partially down to the Government’s working from home guidance having an impact on weekdays.

The number of Tube passengers will also be affected in the coming weeks by the 17-week closure of the Northern line between Moorgate and Kennington due to the Bank station upgrade works which began two days ago.

Shorter isolation period comes into effect today

People in England can now end their coronavirus isolation after five full days in a move hailed as restoring ‘extra freedoms’. 

In a change to self-isolation guidance from today, people can leave quarantine after five full days, so long as they test negative on days five and six.

Ministers had been under pressure to reduce the isolation period – which was previously seven days – to help address staff shortages across the economy and public services by allowing people to return to work earlier.

The Government said research showed that between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of people are still infectious by day six, but the percentage of those released while infectious falls to around 7 per cent if people have two consecutive negative tests and then leave isolation from day six.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘Following a robust review of the evidence, we have reduced the minimum self-isolation period to five full days in England.

‘This is a balanced and proportionate approach to restore extra freedoms and reduce the pressure on essential public services over the winter. It is crucial people only stop self-isolating after two negative tests to ensure you are not infectious.’

The Department of Health said the default self-isolation period remains 10 days, and that people can only end it early if they receive two negative results on consecutive days – the earliest being days five and six. 

It comes as official figures showed coronavirus cases are now falling in virtually every area of England as the Omicron wave continues to collapse with deaths six times lower than in the second wave.

Some 6,519 out of 6,790 neighbourhoods (96 per cent) around the country recorded a fall in infections in the week to January 11, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

It means 54million people are living in places with declining case rates now just eight weeks after Omicron burst onto the scene in late November and sent infections to record levels. 

Parts of Castle Point, Shropshire and Bexley have seen infections fall by more than 70 per cent week-on-week.

Deaths – which are the biggest lagging indicator of the trend in infections – are still rising slowly but there are an average of just 212 per day now compared to 1,200 per day at the peak of Alpha wave last January, despite three times more infections this wave.

The weakened link between infections and less severe outcomes is down to protection from the vaccines, natural immunity, antivirals and Omicron, which is thought to be intrinsically milder than older strains.

This is also highlighted in intensive care rates, with 4.5 times fewer patients moved to mechanical ventilation beds and half as many patients in hospital overall.

There is now growing optimism among the Government, its own scientific advisers and even the World Health Organization which says the UK is on the cusp of taming Covid.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a modeller on an influential SAGE committee, today predicted the UK would have a flu-like relationship with Covid by the end of the year. 

He said the country has almost reached a point where ministers could start discussing what ‘living with’ Covid would be like.

Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid, said there was ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for Britain amid plummeting case numbers and stable hospital rates.

Britain had one of the fastest vaccination programmes in the world, which coupled with high levels of natural immunity from sustained transmission within the community has allowed England to be one of the most open countries in Europe.

Congestion data recorded by TomTom found the level in London between 8am and 9am this morning (far right) was at 69 per cent - the highest it has been for that time period in six weeks since December 8. Figures for the past week are shown above

Congestion data recorded by TomTom found the level in London between 8am and 9am this morning (far right) was at 69 per cent – the highest it has been for that time period in six weeks since December 8. Figures for the past week are shown above

Transport for London usage fell dramatically when Plan B restrictions came in last month - but levels are now recovering again

Transport for London usage fell dramatically when Plan B restrictions came in last month – but levels are now recovering again

This TfL graphic shows the breakdown of taps by passengers on the Underground when split by type of station

This TfL graphic shows the breakdown of taps by passengers on the Underground when split by type of station

Plan B restrictions are still in place, with staff told to work from home and vaccine passports required for some events, but these are expected to be dropped by the end of the month.

SAGE modeller predicts UK will have a ‘flu-type’ relationship with Covid by the end of the year

The continued drop in UK Covid cases indicates the Omicron wave may well be ‘turning around’, a leading expert advising the Government has said.

Prof Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), said the latest case figures are ‘cautiously good news’ and he hopes the country may have a ‘flu-type’ relationship with the virus by the end of the year.

The latest data shows a 38 per cent drop over the last seven days across the UK in the numbers testing positive for Covid-19, with 70,924 new cases reported yesterday.

Prof Tildesley told BBC Breakfast ‘it does look like across the whole of the country cases do seem to be falling’, adding: ‘We have had very, very high case numbers throughout late December and early January – we peaked about 200,000 at one point.

‘We do now seem to be a little bit beyond that. Hospital admissions are still relatively high, albeit there is some evidence that maybe they’re plateauing or possibly going down in London, which is cautiously good news.

‘I would say we probably need about an extra week of data to really see the effect of children going back to school – we’re still only two weeks since children went back to school – but if we still see that over the next week or so, I’d be pretty confident that we are seeing this wave turning around.’

Asked whether changes in testing rules, which means people do not always need a PCR test, may have contributed to the drop in cases, he added: ‘Yesterday was a Sunday and we were in the region of 70,000 (cases), which is a lot lower than previous Sundays, so I think, even taking into account any changes in testing, I think it is pretty clear that the Omicron wave is slowing down.’

The expert said he hopes that by the end of the year the nation will have a different relationship with Covid-19.

Education Secretary and former vaccine tsar Nadhim Zahawi said the country’s Covid data is ‘promising’ and he is ‘confident’ restrictions can be eased later this month.

UKHSA data shows cases fell in 6,519 of 6,790 of England’s local authorities in the week to January 11, with rates plummeting fastest in Hadleigh North in Castle Point (71.5 per cent), Bridgnorth East in Shropshire (71.2 per cent) and Albany Park in Bexley (71.1 per cent) in the week to January 11.

There were near-70 per cent falls in parts of Cumbria, Essex and Sussex.

Meanwhile, cases are continuing to double cent week-on-week in parts of Birmingham and Bradford, with positive tests inclining quickest in Bordesley Green North, Toller Lane & Infirmary and Chellow Heights.

Parts of Peterborough and Sheffield have also seen big upticks, official data shows.

But daily data signals that the Omicron wave is subsiding, with just 70,924 positive samples announced yesterday across Britain, the lowest figure in more than a month.

And despite lags in reporting confirmed cases over the weekend, case numbers have been trending downwards for 11 days.

With experts saying that the latest wave has already peaked, official data shows its impact has been a fraction of the level of the wave seen last winter.

The Office for National Statistics estimates the second wave took off in early September 2020 before subsiding by April 2021.

Official figures show cases spiked at 76,000 and nearly 40,000 patients were in hospital at one time, while more than 4,000 people required ventilators and 1,360 daily deaths were recorded at last winter’s peak.

Despite the number of positive Covid samples registered more than tripling to 246,000, hospitalisation levels and deaths over the same period are a fraction of the number seen last year.

UKHSA data shows the number of infected patients in hospital peaked at 19,876 on January 10 – half the level seen at the peak last winter.

And Omicron’s increased transmissibility led to nearly 40 per cent of Covid patients in England being so-called incidental, according to NHS England data.

It means they were not primarily being treated for the virus, suggesting the latest wave was even milder than the figures suggest.

As Boris Johnson prepares to review the Plan B rules on mandatory mask-wearing, working from home and Covid passes on January 26, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden indicated things are looking good for a rolling back of measures. 

Covid case rate per 100,000 people per region in the week to January 4
Covid case rate per 100,000 people per region in the week to January 11

UK Health Security Agency data shows Covid cases are falling in 96 per cent of the country’s nearly 7,000 neighbourhoods. The maps show the number of cases per 100,000 people in each region, with darker colours equating to more infections. The first map shows case rates in the week to January 4, while the second map shows cases in the week to January 11

Covid case rate per 100,000 people per region in the week to January 4
Covid case rate per 100,000 people per region in the week to January 11

UKHSA data shows Covid infections fell in the week to January 11. The maps show the number of cases per 100,000 people in each part of London, with darker colours equating to more infections. The first map shows case rates in the week to January 4, while the second map shows cases in the week to January 11

The Office for National Statistics estimates the second wave took off in early September 2020 before subsiding by April 2021. Official figures show cases spiked at 76,000 during the Alpha-fuelled wave, while three times as many cases were recorded at the peak of 246,000 this winter

The Office for National Statistics estimates the second wave took off in early September 2020 before subsiding by April 2021. Official figures show cases spiked at 76,000 during the Alpha-fuelled wave, while three times as many cases were recorded at the peak of 246,000 this winter

Despite the number of positive Covid samples registered during the third wave being three times higher than during the second wave, UKHSA data shows the number of infected patients in hospital peaked at 19,876 (red line) on January 10 2022 – half the level seen at the peak last winter, when 39,254 infected people were in hospital (yellow line)

Despite the number of positive Covid samples registered during the third wave being three times higher than during the second wave, UKHSA data shows the number of infected patients in hospital peaked at 19,876 (red line) on January 10 2022 – half the level seen at the peak last winter, when 39,254 infected people were in hospital (yellow line)

The number of Covid patients who were moved on to mechanical ventilation beds to help with their breathing dropped over the course of the Omicron wave. Some 900 infected patients were in the critical care beds on January 4 during the last wave, the most recent peak, compared to 4,077 on January 24 last year – 4.5 times fewer patients.

The number of Covid patients who were moved on to mechanical ventilation beds to help with their breathing dropped over the course of the Omicron wave. Some 900 infected patients were in the critical care beds on January 4, the most recent peak (red line), compared to 4,077 on January 24 last year (yellow line) – equating to 4.5 times fewer patients

And Covid fatalities within 28 days of a positive test were six times lower at the peak this winter compared to 12 months earlier. Some 1,359 coronavirus fatalities were registered on January 19 2021 (yellow line), compared to 236 Covid deaths on January 9 2022 (red line), the most recent peak in the Omicron wave

And Covid fatalities within 28 days of a positive test were six times lower at the peak this winter compared to 12 months earlier. Some 1,359 coronavirus fatalities were registered on January 19 2021 (yellow line), compared to 236 Covid deaths on January 9 2022 (red line), the most recent peak in the Omicron wave

He said there has been ‘some very promising data’ on infections and hospital admissions from the Omicron variant, which ‘gives us pause for hope and optimism’.

Mr Dowden told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme yesterday: ‘It has always been my hope that we would have the Plan B restrictions for the shortest period possible.

‘I’m under no doubt the kind of burdens this puts hospitality, wider business, schools and so on under, and I want us to get rid of those if we possibly can.

‘The signs are encouraging but, clearly, we will wait to see the data ahead of that final decision.’ 

UKHSA data shows cases are falling in 6,519 of 6,790 of England's local authorities, with rates plummeting fastest in Hadleigh North in Castle Point (71.5 per cent), Bridgnorth East in Shropshire (71.2 per cent) and Albany Park in Bexley (71.1 per cent) in the week to January 11. Infections are also tumbling in Woodbank Park in Stockport (70.7 per cent), Rayleigh South East in Rochford (70 per cent) and Belfairs in Southend-on-Sea (69.9 per cent). Dalton South in Barrow-in-Furness, Margaretting, Stock & Ramsden in Chelmsford, Fernhurst & Northchapel in Chichester and the Dales & South Skegby in Ashfield have also seen cases fall by nearly 70 per cent in a week

UKHSA data shows cases are falling in 6,519 of 6,790 of England’s local authorities, with rates plummeting fastest in Hadleigh North in Castle Point (71.5 per cent), Bridgnorth East in Shropshire (71.2 per cent) and Albany Park in Bexley (71.1 per cent) in the week to January 11. Infections are also tumbling in Woodbank Park in Stockport (70.7 per cent), Rayleigh South East in Rochford (70 per cent) and Belfairs in Southend-on-Sea (69.9 per cent). Dalton South in Barrow-in-Furness, Margaretting, Stock & Ramsden in Chelmsford, Fernhurst & Northchapel in Chichester and the Dales & South Skegby in Ashfield have also seen cases fall by nearly 70 per cent in a week

Meanwhile, cases are continuing to rise by up to 104 per cent week-on-week in parts of Birmingham and Bradford, with positive tests inclining quickest in Bordesley Green North, Toller Lane & Infirmary and Chellow Heights. Thornbury, Brown Royd, Canterbury and Heaton Highgate in Bradford, Central Park in Peterborough, Balsall Heath East in Birmingham and Burngreave & Grimesthorpe in Sheffield have also seen cases continue to rise by up to 83 per cent in the week to January 11. But daily data signals that the Omicron wave is subsiding, with just 70,924 positive samples announced yesterday, the lowest figure in more than a month

Meanwhile, cases are continuing to rise by up to 104 per cent week-on-week in parts of Birmingham and Bradford, with positive tests inclining quickest in Bordesley Green North, Toller Lane & Infirmary and Chellow Heights. Thornbury, Brown Royd, Canterbury and Heaton Highgate in Bradford, Central Park in Peterborough, Balsall Heath East in Birmingham and Burngreave & Grimesthorpe in Sheffield have also seen cases continue to rise by up to 83 per cent in the week to January 11. But daily data signals that the Omicron wave is subsiding, with just 70,924 positive samples announced yesterday, the lowest figure in more than a month

Figures compiled by Oxford University experts at Our World in Data, shows that while Covid cases have reached record levels across the UK in the latest wave of infections, the number of patients in hospital, on ventilators and deaths are a fraction of the level recorded in previous surges in infections

Figures compiled by Oxford University experts at Our World in Data, shows that while Covid cases have reached record levels across the UK in the latest wave of infections, the number of patients in hospital, on ventilators and deaths are a fraction of the level recorded in previous surges in infections 

As the jabs rollout continues, NHS England said that from today boosters will be offered to children aged 12 to 15 who are most at risk from coronavirus.

They said clinically at-risk children in this age group or those who live with someone who has a weakened immune system are entitled to their booster three months after their two primary doses, and those who are severely immunosuppressed are eligible for a booster after a third primary dose.

Meanwhile all 16 and 17-year-olds in England can get their boosters from Monday. About 40,000 teenagers will be eligible for their top-up dose as the national booking service opens in the latest phase of the vaccine programme.

Previously, boosters were only recommended for clinically vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds who are most at risk from Covid-19.


The UK’s Covid-19 infections have increased by 44.6 per cent in a week as Boris Johnson today suggested NHS staff could be moved to plug shortages amid fears about the Omicron wave triggering a lockdown by default.   

Department of Health bosses reported a further 157,758 cases today, a rise from the 109,077 cases which were reported in the country last Monday. 

The number of people dying with the virus saw a 70.6 per cent decrease, with 42 deaths reported in the UK today compared to 143 on December 27. 

This is the thirteenth day in a row that cases have been above the 100,000 mark as the country moves out of the festive season and comes just days after the week-on-week increase was as high as 72.5 per cent on December 29.     

Meanwhile the number of people being admitted to hospital in London has fallen, with 314 patients admitted to hospital on January 1, a 28 per cent decrease from the 437 admitted last Monday. 

Today Professor in Medicine Paul Hunter said the latest data from the ZOE Covid study app suggested that infections in London peaked just before Christmas.

He wrote on Twitter: ‘Latest Zoe app data suggests that infections in London did peak a day or so before Christmas and are probably peaking nationally about now, though still region to region variation.’

And scientist Tim Spector, who works for the PREDICT studies and the ZOE Covid study app, tweeted: ‘Covid cases in London now decreasing + UK slowing – it is great to see no real change in Covid deaths over last month. 

‘The health crisis is in danger of being driven by staff problems due to over- cautious isolation rules. Lets reduce this to 5 days!’ 

It comes as the PM today revealed that the government is looking at redeploying personnel after the public sector was warned to brace for a worst-case scenario of a quarter of staff – around 1.4million people – being off work.

One in ten NHS employees were not in on New Year’s Eve, according to official figures – although just 50,000 of the 110,000 total was related to coronavirus.

United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust has declared a ‘critical incident’ linked to ‘extreme and unprecedented’ staff shortages.

Nearly a third of rail services have been axed at some stations in recent days, after as many as one in ten staff called in sick with illnesses including Covid – while major engineering works on key commuter routes are scheduled to continue until midway through next week.    

Councils across the UK are having to redistribute staff between essential services to keep everything running. 

Schools are being urged to make contingency plans to deal with staff absences when they return from the Christmas holidays this week. 

On a visit to a vaccination centre in Stoke Mandeville today, Mr Johnson urged people to ‘stick to Plan B’ and Omicron is ‘plainly milder’.

He cautioned that it would be ‘folly’ to assume the pandemic is over the health service will be under ‘considerable pressure’ for weeks to come, saying the government is ‘looking at what we can do to move people into those areas that are particularly badly affected’. 

But he batted away calls for the self-isolation period to be cut to five days – saying that could make staff shortages worse by fuelling spread. 

‘I think the way forward for the country as a whole is to continue with the path that we’re on. We’ll will keep everything under review,’ the PM said.

‘The mixture of things that we’re doing at the moment is, I think, the right one.

‘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.’

He said: ‘I think we’ve got to recognise that the pressure on our NHS, on our hospitals, is going to be considerable in the course the next couple of weeks, and maybe more.’ 

Earlier, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi insisted the ‘pattern’ of the mutant strain was not the same as Delta – with fewer patients needing a ventilator and generally staying in hospital for a shorter time.

In a round of interviews, he highlighted the ‘really good’ signs on infection rates coming out of London, and stressed that the health service is experienced at moving staff around to deal with shortages.    

In other Covid developments:

  • Daily reported coronavirus cases in Scotland have reached the highest on record at 20,217;
  • More than a quarter of a million people got a booster or third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine over New Year’s Eve and the weekend, figures from NHS England show; 
  • Bin collections have been cancelled in areas including Manchester, Essex and Somerset due to staff shortages;
  • The number of NHS workers staying at home for Covid reasons has doubled in recent days, figures showed; 
  • Local council officials said they were having to redeploy staff between services to keep everything runninng;
  • In a brighter sign, the Fuller’s pub group said absence rates were improving in London and now appeared to be past their peak;
  • Mr Zahawi said entire classes may need to be merged into larger groups or sent home to work remotely due to teacher absences caused by coronavirus
  • Fewer Covid patients in hospital are relying on ventilation compared to previous peaks during the pandemic, it has been revealed.
Boris Johnson visited a vaccination hub at Stoke Mandeville Stadium in Aylesbury today

Boris Johnson visited a vaccination hub at Stoke Mandeville Stadium in Aylesbury today 

LONDON: Cases in the capital have been plateauing recently although holiday reporting  glitched could be to blame. The grey bars are incomplete data and will rise

LONDON: Cases in the capital have been plateauing recently although holiday reporting  glitched could be to blame. The grey bars are incomplete data and will rise 

In a round of interviews this morning, Nadhim Zahawi highlighted the 'really good' signs coming out of London where infection rates seem to be 'plateauing'

In a round of interviews this morning, Nadhim Zahawi highlighted the ‘really good’ signs coming out of London where infection rates seem to be ‘plateauing’

Images show very few motorists along the M1 and A41 today following the New Years holiday period

Images show very few motorists along the M1 and A41 today following the New Years holiday period

Staff shortages CRIPPLE Britain: Bin collections are cancelled, council services at risk, and businesses shut

Covid-related staff shortages continued to have a major impact on British life today just hours before much of the country returns to work – with bin collections suspended, rail services cancelled and one in ten NHS staff off sick.

As some employees prepare go back into the office after the Christmas and New Year break while others continue to work from home, figures showed nearly a third of rail services have been axed at some stations in recent days.

Nearly one in ten rail staff across all train firms in the UK are thought to be off with sickness including Covid, while major engineering works on key commuter routes are scheduled to continue until midway through next week.

Councils across the UK are having to redistribute staff between essential services to keep everything running, and the public sector has been asked to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to a quarter of staff off work.

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.

In the health service, one in ten NHS employees were not in hospitals on New Year’s Eve due to illness, according to official figures – but less than half had coronavirus, amounting to fewer than 50,000 of the 110,000 not in work.

The UK recorded 137,583 new Covid infections yesterday, a week-on-week increase of 14.7 per cent – a slower rate of growth than preceding days, but not including an update from Scotland.

In contrast to the mood music south of the border, Scots have been warned that April could be ‘too early’ to be planning large parties in a sign that Nicola Sturgeon’s tougher Covid rules could be extended for months.    

Ministers will review the restrictions in England on Wednesday, with mounting confidence that there will not be an additional tightening. 

The latest figures suggest growth in Covid hospitalisations in London – seen as a leading indicator of what may happen in the rest of the country – slowed in the run-up to New Year, although holiday reporting glitches could be affecting the total.

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.

While a holiday effect may be artificially keeping those numbers low, the rate of increase is well behind the days before that saw a 32 per cent increase on December 29 to 511 admissions.   

Mr Zahawi told BBC Breakfast that Plan B measures would be reviewed on Wednesday, but added: ‘There’s nothing in the data that gives me any concern that we need to go beyond where we are at.

‘There’s some really good data from London that it looks like the infection rates are plateauing, if not yet coming down. But we are seeing leakage into the over-50s in terms of infections, and it’s generally the over-50s who end up with severe infection and hospitalisation.’

The minister said on Sky News: ‘The number of people in hospital with coronavirus has begun to rise in the over 50s, which we are concerned about. But on the whole actually the number of people in ICU has come down, which is good news…

‘On the whole we are not seeing the same pattern as with Delta where we had a much greater number of people on ventilation and there seems to be a shorter period of time for people in ICU as well.

‘And those who are being admitted with Covid, rather than for Covid, is also about a third of that number.’

Mr Zahawi said the health service has ‘infrastructure’ to deploy staff to fill gaps in provision. ‘The NHS is very good at being able to move staff around within the system,’ he said. ‘They have an infrastructure to do that. We now have 10,000 more nurses and 3,000 more doctors than we had last year working in the NHS.

‘But the NHS is very good at sort of making sure that staff shortages are monitored and dealt with pretty well. They’ve done it over many years in winter when we’ve been, you know, have big flu viruses around.’ 

But Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said it currently faces a ‘state of crisis’.

‘In many parts of the health service, we are currently in a state of crisis. In the face of high levels of demand and staff absence some hospitals are having to declare a ‘critical incident’,’ he said.

‘Some hospitals are making urgent calls to exhausted staff to give up rest days and leave to enable them to sustain core services. Many more hospitals are having to ban visitors to try to reduce the spread of infection. NHS England is continuing to plan for surge capacity.

‘Community and social care services, which were already massively overstretched, are at breaking point. In many areas, ambulance services are unable to meet their target response times. Primary care is having to add caring for Covid-19 patients and trying to keep them out of hospitals to driving the booster programme and dealing with unprecedented underlying demand which is driven in part by the millions of unwell people waiting for appointments and operations.’

As public services struggle to cope, councils in Manchester, Essex, Somerset and Buckinghamshire this weekend announced reduced services or a complete suspension of waste collections as staff numbers were slashed due to positive Covid tests and isolation.

Chelmsford City Council have cancelled three days’ worth of food waste collections after 23 members of staff called in sick or unable to work, while 1,000 recycling bins were not collected in North Somerset. 

Despite ministers holding the line in England, Scotland’s national clinical director has delivered another hammer blow to the hospitality industry by hinting that the ban on large public gatherings amid high Covid cases could last well into the spring.

PM says masks will be axed in schools as soon as possible

Boris Johnson has admitted he does not like the idea of schoolchildren having to wear facemasks – and has promised they would not be kept longer than ‘is necessary’.

The Prime Minister – under pressure after a series of sleaze allegations engulfed the Tories last year – insisted science backed the restrictions.

His own MPs have criticised the guidance, which will also see every secondary school pupils be tested for Covid. 

Mr Johnson said there was scientific evidence the face coverings could cut transmission rates.

He added: ‘There’s an increasing body of scientific support for the idea that face masks can contain transmission.

‘We don’t want to keep them. I don’t like the idea of having face masks in (the) classroom any more than anybody else does, but we won’t keep them on a day more than is necessary.’

It came as schools said the Government’s plans for more testing and the facemasks will be ‘challenging’ and could inadvertently spark the return of online learning. 

The Department for Education says head teachers have access to their own supply of coronavirus swabs to meet demand. 

Pub, restaurant and nightclub bosses believe firms in Edinburgh missed out on around £20million on Hogmanay due to coronavirus measures.

But Professor Jason Leitch played down calls for the famous New Year street party to be rescheduled to April, saying it could be too soon for mass events. 

His comments come as hospitality firms continue to struggle under Ms Sturgeon’s restrictions, which mean pubs and restaurants must have table service only and one metre social distancing between groups. 

Nightclubs were closed on December 27 for at least three weeks, and officials have been warned that some hospitality businesses currently closed will never reopen. 

A further 137,583 Covid cases were reported yesterday, while figures on New Year’s Day showed a 33.4 per cent week-on-week increase in new cases.

Covid figures for Scotland were not available yesterday, and hospitalisations are not updated on Sundays.  

Meanwhile, secondary school pupils will be told to wear face masks from the moment they arrive until they leave when they return to classrooms this week.

In an effort to protect the education of millions of youngsters amid a sharp rise in cases of the Omicron variant, Ministers have requested that pupils cover their faces all day – including while they are being taught. They are already asked to wear masks in communal areas.

Mr Johnson admitted he does not like the idea of schoolchildren having to wear face coverings, but said there was scientific evidence they cut transmission rates.

He added: ‘There’s an increasing body of scientific support for the idea that face masks can contain transmission.

‘We don’t want to keep them. I don’t like the idea of having face masks in (the) classroom any more than anybody else does, but we won’t keep them on a day more than is necessary.’

Schools have raised concerns that plans for more testing and masks will be ‘challenging’ and could inadvertently trigger the return of online learning. 

The Department for Education says head teachers have access to their own supply of coronavirus swabs to meet demand.

This is despite there being a nationwide test shortages – with ministers saying a stash has already been sent to each school. They will be swabbed on site on the first day, then pupils will be expected to take lateral flow tests themselves at home twice a week as well.

Scotland's national clinical director Jason Leitch dismissed calls for Hogmanay to be rescheduled to April, saying it would be too soon for mass events

Scottish hospitality firms continue to struggle under Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's restrictions,

Pub, restaurant and nightclub bosses believe firms in Edinburgh missed out on around £20 million on Hogmanay due to coronavirus measures. But national clinical director Jason Leitch (L) dismissed calls for the famous New Year street party to be rescheduled to April, meaning restrictions brought in by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (R) are likely to last until spring.

Lincolnshire hospitals declare staffing emergency 

Hospitals in Lincolnshire have declared a staffing emergency amid Omicron-fuelled absences — as the NHS draws up plans to recruit reservists to help ease winter pressures.

United Lincolnshire Hospitals warned in leaked documents that so many doctors and nurses were now absent from shifts that care was ‘compromised’, especially for stroke and heart patients.

The trust — which runs four major hospitals in the county — had 7.5 per cent of employees, or 643 out of 8,500, off sick on December 26, including 150 who were absent due to Covid.

Yesterday it declared a ‘critical incident’, meaning hospital bosses are calling in support from nearby trusts to help manage the crisis.

It comes amid mounting concerns over a staffing crisis in the NHS 110,000 employees — or one in ten — off sick due to the virus in late December, including 50,000 suffering from Covid. Trusts have been told to brace for one in four being absent.

The news on masks was met with concern from Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the Commons education select committee, who said he feared the move could damage children’s mental health.

But Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said he would rather have face coverings worn in classrooms than children stuck at home. 

MPs are due to return to the Commons on Wednesday following the Christmas recess. The Government is set to review its Plan B measures on the same date.

The regulations are not due to expire until January 26, but Downing Street said at the point they were announced in December that a review would take place three weeks after implementation.

The likelihood of Scots facing an extended ‘fun-ban’ increased when Professor Leitch, said that a planned rescheduling of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay New Year’s party to April ‘might be slightly too early’.

He said: ‘I like an Edinburgh night-out like any other person. Whether we can bring that forward to April, the jury is still out.

‘We are hopeful. We have now got data from South Africa, from University College London, from Denmark and, crucially, Edinburgh that suggests serious disease is certainly less with this variant, maybe as much as three-quarters less. But let’s put that in perspective – 2,500 Delta cases [per day] gets you 50 people in hospital.

‘You need 10,000 Omicron cases for the same number of admissions and Scotland is at 15,000. Omicron is encouraging compared to Delta, but Delta was a very low bar.’

Gavin Stevenson, vice-chairman of the Night Time Industries Association in Scotland, claimed there had been an 80 per cent drop in footfall on Hogmanay, which may have cost the sector £20million.

He told the Sunday Mail: ‘Hogmanay has been pretty disastrous for the licensed trade. I would estimate that the hospitality sector has lost tens of millions of pounds on Hogmanay night alone.

‘It could be a final nail in the coffin for small businesses.’

It comes after a horde of police officers descended on a Glaswegian pub on New Year’s Eve to break up a socially-distanced gathering after they reportedly saw ‘dancing’. 

Onlookers booed and shouted ‘shame’ as around 25 officers stormed the Avant Garde gastropub in Glasgow and arrested two revellers during the raid on the venue which was hosting a socially-distanced and ticketed New Year’s Eve party.

Bar owner Billy Tetmichalis, 63, who plans to make a formal complaint against the police, says he was told he had to close because customers were not following Covid regulations. 

However, Police Scotland said the visit was part of a ‘routine visit’ and not to enforce Covid restrictions.

Police officers tackled a man in a Glasgow bar, put him in a headlock and arrested him as he went to retrieve his coat after they arrived to break up a New Year's Eve party in the city centre

Police officers tackled a man in a Glasgow bar, put him in a headlock and arrested him as he went to retrieve his coat after they arrived to break up a New Year’s Eve party in the city centre

They told MailOnline the owner was unable to produce proof it was complying with licensing conditions and was subject to enforcement action.  

Mr Tetmichalis told MailOnline officers entered his bar, in King’s Street, Glasgow, because they saw a few people ‘dancing’ and getting served at the bar. 

‘We had complied with all the measures. We were doing table service but some folk got off their seats to approach the bar and we didn’t stop them because everyone was safe.

‘This venue has a capacity for 306 people and we stopped selling tickets at 80 in order to give them enough space – everyone was well-spaced.

‘Some people came to the bar and we didn’t stop them – if that makes us at fault, so be it.’

Ms Sturgeon is expected to update the Scottish Parliament on the restrictions on Wednesday.

Scottish Labour health spokesman Jackie Baillie said: ‘Every restriction means lost revenue for businesses that were already fighting for survival.

‘The Scottish Government must ensure that all those eligible for support receive it.’

New fears for face to face teaching: School staff absences could force a fresh return to online lessons as masks make a classroom comeback

  • Nadhim Zahawi said schools might find face-to-face teaching impossible
  • Omicron variant could lead to mass staff shortages and teacher absences
  • His admission came as Department for Education confirmed secondary school pupils will have to wear masks in classrooms and test twice a week 

Entire classes may need to be merged into larger groups or sent home to work remotely due to teacher absences caused by coronavirus, the Education Secretary said yesterday.

Schools may find it ‘impossible’ to deliver face-to-face teaching to all pupils as the Omicron variant leads to mass staff shortages, Nadhim Zahawi added.

His admission came as the Department for Education confirmed that secondary school pupils will have to wear masks in classrooms and test themselves twice a week when they return tomorrow.

In an open letter to schools sent yesterday, Mr Zahawi said remote learning ‘should only be on a short-term measure’ and schools ‘should return to full-time in-person attendance for all pupils as soon as practicable’.

He added: ‘If operational challenges caused by workforce shortages in your setting make delivery of face-to-face teaching impossible, I would encourage you to consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning.’

This could involve using all available staff to ‘maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible’ while schools ‘flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils’. However, he stressed that such arrangements must be only temporary.

He added: ‘If operational challenges caused by workforce shortages in your setting make delivery of face-to-face teaching impossible, I would encourage you to consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning.’

This could involve using all available staff to ‘maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible’ while schools ‘flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils’. However, he stressed that such arrangements must be only temporary.

Short of sending children home to learn remotely, other options include bringing in supply staff and combining classes into larger groups.

Less than 3 per cent of teachers were recorded as being off sick at the start of last month. But worries are growing that numbers could rise sharply – with one of Britain’s largest academy trusts saying it had experienced staff absence levels of 10 per cent.

And unions have predicted some form of disruption ‘looks sadly inevitable’ as the new term starts.

The Government has faced mounting criticism over its decision to reintroduce face masks, with critics saying it a 'declaration of war against children' (file image)

The Government has faced mounting criticism over its decision to reintroduce face masks, with critics saying it a ‘declaration of war against children’ (file image)

The Government has faced mounting criticism over its decision to reintroduce face masks, with critics saying it a ‘declaration of war against children’.

However teachers and unions have broadly welcomed the move, stressing that it is preferable to remote learning.

In August 2020, Boris Johnson called the notion of wearing masks in classrooms ‘nonsensical’. But the recommendation was brought in for two months last March and will again be in place from the start of the coming term until at least January 26.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘Face coverings are already advised in communal areas for pupils in year 7 and above.

‘Pupils are accustomed to their use and we are sure the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms is something that schools and colleges will take in their stride.’

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said masks were unlikely to have a ‘significant mental health effect’ on pupils.

She added: ‘We have mask-wearing in secondary schools in Wales and Scotland, and I don’t think that it is causing a huge problem.’ And Rev Steve Chalke, the founder of academy trust Oasis Community Learning, said that while enforcing masks in classrooms was ‘not optimum’, it was ‘better than working at home’.

He told Sky News: ‘We can’t afford lost days of schooling for these children and we know from reports in the media that children being left on their own is not good for them, it’s not good for society.’

However, Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, told Sky News he wanted the Government to ‘set out the evidence’ in the Commons to justify the decision.

‘If masks are not required in offices or restaurants, why are we getting young kids to put them on?’ he said.

And Us For Them, a parents’ group which has campaigned against schools being closed during the pandemic, said it was ‘dumbfounded’ by the decision.

‘Kids’ faces should never be used as political pawns. This is a declaration of war against children’, the group added.

Some 7,000 air cleaning units will also be provided to schools, colleges and early-years settings to improve air quality, it was announced. And staff and pupils have been urged to self-test at home before they return and start testing twice-weekly at school.

The Department for Education said schools and colleges can obtain tests through a separate supply route and ‘will have access to more as needed’.

A Government spokesman said masks and other measures will ‘maximise the number of children in school’ for the ‘maximum amount of time’. 


One of the Government’s leading Covid modellers today appeared to back Boris Johnson’s plan to ‘ride out’ the Omicron wave as he claimed that imposing more restrictions now would have little effect.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) which feeds into SAGE, said ‘we’re starting to see things turn around’.

He claimed that if measures had been imposed before Christmas they may have reduced the number of infections but admitted restrictions would be ‘much less effective’ now the outbreak may be peaking. However, he refused to rule out needing more curbs if the wave starts to grow again. 

Dr Tildesley pointed to Omicron hotspot London, where infections and hospital admissions appear to be flatlining already, as reason to be optimistic about how the epidemic will play out in the rest of the country.

There were 347 admissions in the capital on New Year’s Day, the latest day with data, down 7 per cent compared to the previous week. It is the second day in a row admissions have fallen week-on-week.

It comes after the Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference last night that England had a ‘chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country’ because it is milder than older strains.

While daily infections are running at record levels — 218,000 people tested positive yesterday — the number of Covid patients in hospital is still a fraction of previous peaks.

There are 15,000 Covid inpatients now compared to nearly 40,000 last January and about a third of current patients are not primarily sick with the virus. Fewer sufferers are also requiring ventilation.

Dr Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, told BBC Breakfast: ‘It does look like we may be in a situation where – we’re getting cases very, very high – but there’s early evidence that things might be turning around in London.

‘The problem, of course, is that if you’re thinking about introducing controls, once you’re beyond the peak of the infection, then that has much less effect.

‘So, our modelling work that was done before Christmas did suggest that early interventions would have had some impact in reducing the number of cases and reducing the pressure on hospitals.

‘But at this point, talking in the early new year when we’re starting to see things turn around, the impact of any interventions being introduced now would be that much less effective.’

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) which feeds into SAGE, questioned the need for more curbs when 'we're starting to see things turn around'

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) which feeds into SAGE, questioned the need for more curbs when ‘we’re starting to see things turn around’

The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that England had a 'chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country' because it is milder than older strains

The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that England had a ‘chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country’ because it is milder than older strains

There are 15,000 Covid inpatients now compared to nearly 40,000 last January, with Omicron sufferers being admitted quicker and presenting with milder illness

There are 15,000 Covid inpatients now compared to nearly 40,000 last January, with Omicron sufferers being admitted quicker and presenting with milder illness

More than a quarter of Covid inpatients on December 28 were not primarily sick with the virus. Fewer sufferers are also requiring ventilation

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

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

Dr Tildesley’s modelling before Christmas was heavily criticised for being too pessimistic after projecting thousands of daily deaths without any curbs. 

‘The next few days will be really, really key for us to try to identify that – children are going back to school, we’ve had sort of differences in mixing patterns over the Christmas period and we are yet to see what happens in the data as a result of that,’ he said.

Omicron isolation crisis: Warning disruption could last for WEEKS with one in 10 workers off sick as bin collections, care homes and shops continue to be hit by milder wave

Commuters heading into the office in Britain faced travel disruption again during the morning rush hour today with hundreds of trains cancelled as Covid self-isolation rules wreaked havoc on essential services.

The misery of staff shortages that has led to reduced timetables across the UK was compounded by faults with trains and points this morning for those travelling to work across London and Birmingham.

One in ten NHS staff are now off sick or self-isolating with the milder but more contagious Omicron variant – and bin collections have been disrupted in Manchester, Birmingham, London, Cheshire, Essex and Cumbria.

Meanwhile a care home group boss in Yorkshire said the staffing challenge ‘is now at the worst it has been throughout the pandemic’, and school leaders told of their worries that staff shortages could worsen.

And shoppers have described long queues due to a lack of checkout staff and some empty shelves, especially for fresh items such as milk – with Iceland saying its number of staff self -isolating is now 1,000 up on a week ago. The continuing shortage of HGV drivers is also causing problems, leading to fears that some stores may have to shut.

On the trains, there was disruption for those using TfL Rail services between London Paddington and Hayes & Harlington in West London due to a points failure between Hanwell and Southall which was blocking some lines.

There were also delays on the Circle line on the London Underground today due to train cancellations.

Those using Greater Anglia trains from Essex as well as TfL Rail services in East London also faced delays this morning between Romford and London Liverpool Street due to a fault on a train at Stratford.

And in the West Midlands this morning there was disruption on CrossCountry and West Midlands Railway services between Birmingham New Street and Redditch due to a broken down train.

Most operators around Britain have already been forced to slash dozens of daily services due to around one in ten rail staff calling in sick – and some train firms will now run reduced services for several weeks.

TransPennine Express cancelled 24 trains yesterday, and CrossCountry has cut around 50 daily services until next week. LNER has removed 12 services a day on the East Coast Main Line between London and Leeds until Friday.

Southern is not running any services in and out of London Victoria until next Monday while the Gatwick Express, which resumed only three weeks ago after an 18-month closure, has been suspended indefinitely.

ScotRail will cut around 160 trains from its normal 2,000 a day until January 28, meaning fewer services in and out of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Meanwhile Transport for Wales cancelled almost 100 trains, including services between Newport and Crosskeys and Chester and Liverpool Lime Street.

‘The next week or two we’ll have a real indication as to whether we really have peaked and things are starting to turn around, then we’ll have much more information as to what the effectiveness of interventions may or may not have been at this point.’

Dr Tildesley said it was ‘really important that in the longer term we do need to think about living with the virus’, rather than relying on damaging restrictions.

He added: ‘We can’t be having a conversation in two years time about putting in lockdown to deal with whatever might be circulating.

‘We do need to get more into the mindset of how are we going to manage living with the virus and continuing with our lives.

‘Now, the Omicron variant when it emerged of course it was a real concern because it’s very transmissible, which obviously is a huge worry, but much less severe than the Delta variant.

‘If that is the pattern that we will see in the future, then hopefully we will be more into a situation of Covid circulating endemically in the UK, hopefully much milder.

He added: ‘And maybe we have to have vaccination campaigns to protect the vulnerable similar to what we have to do with flu every winter, but we can do this without any restrictions.

‘I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but hopefully once we get beyond this winter wave we can start to think more like that as we move further into 2022.’

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. 

Business chiefs have begged the Prime Minister to cut self-isolation as around 1.3million people languish under house arrest and rail services and bin collections grind to a halt.

Mr Johnson is facing mounting pressure to trim the quarantine period again from seven days to five after he gathered his Cabinet ministers to sign off on sticking to ‘Plan B’ restrictions today.

As Parliament returns from its Christmas break, Mr Johnson will face a PMQs grilling this afternoon before making a Covid statement to the House.

Testing rules are set to be loosened in an effort to reduce the pressure on the system, with people who are positive on lateral flows spared having to do a confirmatory PCR.

Meanwhile, travel regulations are also due to be overhauled, axing the requirement for tests before arriving in the UK.

However, the PM has up to now batted away calls for a change on self-isolation, voicing concern it could make the problems worse.

Staff absences are threatening to cripple the country after infections hit another record daily high of 218,000 – meaning nearly 1.3million people have been positive in the past week.

Richard Walker, managing director of the Iceland supermarket chain, warned that although it is coping so far the absentee chart is now ‘almost vertical’ – with levels more than double the peak of the ‘Pingdemic’ last year.

‘I think it is fair to say that business is under strain as never before. This new variant seems to be a lot more contagious and that is having a big impact,’ he told Sky News.

‘My call on government would be firstly to prioritise lateral flow tests for key workers including food retail front line shop workers, but also to revisit the onerous isolation rules.

‘Seven days is a long time for people who are triple jabbed when the symptoms are for the vast majority of people not more than a common cold or mild flu.’

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, also suggested he would support the move as long as it is science-led.

‘If the science says it is possible for people to go back to work earlier, then of course NHS leaders will want that to be possible,’ Mr Taylor said.

The NHS has been hard hit by absences and rising hospitalisations, with Mr Johnson declaring at a Downing Street press conference last night that it is on a ‘war footing’ and a slew of trusts declaring serious incidents.

The PM said now is the moment for ‘utmost caution’, but made clear he is determined to avoid fresh restrictions -stressing Omicron is milder and cases are not translating into the same intensive care demand as previous waves.

The government is expected to say that only people with symptoms should take PCR tests, although those who are asymptomatic and positive on lateral flows should still isolate for at least seven days.

Under the existing rules people are freed at that point as long as they return negative results at least 24 hours apart on days six and seven.

The change appears designed to ease the pressure on labs rather than free up the workforce – as the isolation period begins when asymptomatic individuals are positive on a lateral flow, not when they get a PCR.

Hawkish ministers have hailed Mr Johnson’s resolve in refusing to bow to calls for more restrictions before Christmas.

One Cabinet minister told MailOnline the public would give him credit for ‘bravery’. ‘I think the PM took the right decision. It was the brave decision. He was right about Freedom Day and now this.’

Pointing to a poll suggesting the Tories recovering ground over the past fortnight, the minister said: ‘The public like people to take brave decisions. I think they are giving him credit for Christmas.’

But there is increasing pressure for action to ease pressure on workforces. Craig Beaumont of the Federation of Small Businesses said: ‘Five-day isolation would help tackle some of the staff absences that we are seeing now really climb.’


England has 10MILLION ‘unfilled fillings’, Boris Johnson tells MPs as dentists warn 30million appointments were ‘lost’ during Covid

  • 30million dentist appointments were missed in the first year of the pandemic 
  • Health campaigners say the crisis could lead to mouth cancer being missed










There are 10million ‘unfilled fillings’ across England, Boris Johnson revealed today. 

Justifying his decision to stick to Plan B at Prime Minister’s Questions, he referenced the dental crisis.

He said it ‘goes to show why it is so important to keep this country going and to keep people going to the dentists’. 

Some 30million dentist appointments were missed in the first year of the pandemic in England, dentists estimate. Many only offered emergency appointments in a bid to quell the spread of the virus. 

The British Dental Association argued the figure equates to around 70 per cent of all appointments being missed.

Health campaigners say the crisis could be particularly devastating for children and lead to diseases like mouth cancer being missed.

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions today, he said it was important to avoid Covid restrictions as Britons didn't see the dentist during lockdown, leading to millions of people suffering from tooth decay

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions today, he said it was important to avoid Covid restrictions as Britons didn’t see the dentist during lockdown, leading to millions of people suffering from tooth decay 

Now 20 NHS trusts declare ‘critical incidents’ amid Covid staffing crisis 

More than 20 NHS trusts have now declared a ‘critical incident’ amid staggering staffing shortages caused by the rapid spread of Omicron, as medics called for infection control rules to be loosened to increase capacity.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said more than 20 of England’s 137 trusts — 15 per cent of the entire health service — have signalled they may not be able to deliver vital care in the coming weeks.

But the spokesperson stressed the alert level is ‘not a good indicator’ of the pressures the health service was a under because it only provides a snapshot in time.

They said: ‘It’s worth understanding that critical incidents can last, in some certain circumstances, a matter of hours, a morning or afternoon, a day, some of them can last longer than that. So they’re not a good indicator necessarily of how the NHS is performing.’

The full list of trusts has not been made public, however those which have raised the alarm include North East Ambulance Service, Dorset County Hospital and Great Western Hospitals.

Trusts declaring critical incidents can ask staff on leave or on rest days to return to wards, and raising the alarm enables them to receive help from nearby hospitals. 

Hospitals across the country have cancelled operations and the Prime Minister yesterday revealed plans are being drawn up to call in the Army if the crisis continues to worsen. 

Labour MP for Stockport Navendu Mishra told the House that a mental health support worker constituent was forced to go to the emergency dentist three times for the same tooth because she was unable to get a routine appointment.

Mr Navendu said the lack of dentist appointments amounted to a ‘national scandal’.

Mr Johnson said the case ‘goes to show why it is so important to keep this country going and to keep people going to the dentists’.

He said: ‘One of the troubles we’ve had during lockdown are people haven’t been going – 10million unfilled fillings, I’m told Mr Speaker.

‘And that’s why we’re putting record investment into dentistry, into the NHS, £36billion for all their caterwauling Mr Speaker, they opposed that investment.’

Fillings are used to repair a hole in a tooth that is caused by decay. 

The queue of people waiting for dental treatment is on top of the nearly six million people in England on the waiting list for routine hospital treatment, with experts warning it will take years to catch up on missed care during the pandemic.

Data released by NHS England last month shows a record 5.98million people were waiting for surgery in October, up from 5.83million one month before. The figure includes more than 300,000 people who have been queuing for almost one year.

It comes as more than 20 NHS trusts have now declared a ‘critical incident’ amid staggering staffing shortages caused by the rapid spread of Omicron, as medics called for infection control rules to be loosened to increase capacity.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said more than 20 of England’s 137 trusts — 15 per cent of the entire health service — have signalled they may not be able to deliver vital care in the coming weeks.

But the spokesperson stressed the alert level is ‘not a good indicator’ of the pressures the health service was a under because it only provides a snapshot in time.

They said: ‘It’s worth understanding that critical incidents can last, in some certain circumstances, a matter of hours, a morning or afternoon, a day, some of them can last longer than that. So they’re not a good indicator necessarily of how the NHS is performing.’

The full list of trusts has not been made public, however those which have raised the alarm include North East Ambulance Service, Dorset County Hospital and Great Western Hospitals.

Trusts declaring critical incidents can ask staff on leave or on rest days to return to wards, and raising the alarm enables them to receive help from nearby hospitals. 

Hospitals across the country have cancelled operations and the Prime Minister yesterday revealed plans are being drawn up to call in the Army if the crisis continues to worsen.  

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Omicron has swept through the UK with infections at record levels for the past three weeks and hospital admissions are now on the rise.

One in ten NHS staff are also off work, with many isolating, placing additional strain on the health service – though it is no worse than at this time last year.

But Boris Johnson is confident the country can ride out the current wave without further restrictions.

So is there reason for optimism? 

Bed numbers

Hospitals in England have had fewer beds occupied this winter than they did pre-Covid, latest figures show. An average of 89,097 general and acute beds were open each day in the week to December 26, of which 77,901 were occupied.

But the NHS was looking after more hospital patients in the week to December 26, 2019. Data from NHS England show there were an average of 95,917 beds open and 86,078 occupied that week, giving an occupancy rate of 89.7 per cent.

This is higher than the 87.4 per cent in the most recent data, suggesting there is room for further admissions.

The number of beds unavailable because of Norovirus outbreaks has almost halved, which makes it easier to move patients around, allowing for further admissions.

Tory MPs criticised the BBC over its Covid coverage last night after it gave airtime to a Left-wing critic of the PM. It came as the Today programme aired a string of warnings from other NHS figures over the 'really challenging' circumstances facing hospitals

Tory MPs criticised the BBC over its Covid coverage last night after it gave airtime to a Left-wing critic of the PM. It came as the Today programme aired a string of warnings from other NHS figures over the ‘really challenging’ circumstances facing hospitals

Boris Johnson is confident the country can ride out the current wave without further restrictions

Boris Johnson is confident the country can ride out the current wave without further restrictions

Hospitals in England have had fewer beds occupied this winter than they did pre-Covid, latest figures show. An average of 89,097 general and acute beds were open each day in the week to December 26, of which 77,901 were occupied (pictured, a Covid patient on a ventilator at UCL)

Hospitals in England have had fewer beds occupied this winter than they did pre-Covid, latest figures show. An average of 89,097 general and acute beds were open each day in the week to December 26, of which 77,901 were occupied (pictured, a Covid patient on a ventilator at UCL)

Where’s the flu?

Despite bleak warnings of a ‘double peak’ of flu and Covid crippling the NHS, seasonal influenza has yet to take off – reducing normal winter pressures on hospitals.

Flu cases are currently 95 per cent below levels of 2019-20, the last winter before the pandemic.

During the last bad flu season, in 2017-2018 there were 22,000 flu deaths in England and Wales – but latest ONS data shows that over the past month there have been just 1,640 deaths due to flu.

Spare intensive care capacity

The NHS has more spare capacity in intensive care now than it did pre-pandemic and could open even more beds if it needed to.

The number of Covid patients in critical care in England is half the level of previous peaks. There were an average of 4,079 adult critical care beds open each day in the week to December 26, but only 75 per cent of them – 3,058 – were occupied.

Compare that to an occupancy rate of 79.6 per cent in the week to December 26, 2019, when there was an average of 3,647 adult critical care beds open and 2,903 occupied.

On January 24 last year there were 3,736 Covid patients in intensive care in England – the highest of the pandemic – with 6,270 critical beds open for any illness.

Covid infections in England have soared to record levels, but the number of patients in intensive care has remained flat since Omicron emerged in the UK.

Just five per cent of patients in hospital with Covid are on mechanical ventilators, compared with 11 per cent at the peak of the pandemic last January. The number of Covid patients in England’s hospitals has doubled in the past fortnight and there are currently 15,659 patients receiving treatment.

But only 769 are on ventilators – fewer than two months ago when cases were significantly lower. At the peak last January, there were 34,336 Covid patients in England’s hospitals, including 3,736 in intensive care.

And the proportion of patients with Covid in hospital who then end up in intensive care has plummeted compared with the numbers in April. 

Fewer A&E admissions

Fewer people are attending A&E and being admitted to hospital as an emergency with any illness than before the pandemic.

There were 2,040,323 A&E attendances in England in November, down from 2,143,505 in the same month in 2019.

The number being admitted to hospital as an emergency has also fallen, from 559,556 to 506,238.

However, patients are being made to wait longer in A&E, with just 74 per cent admitted, transferred and discharged within four hours in November 2021.

The fall in attendances and admissions comes despite doctors now having to treat patients with coronavirus, indicating reduced demand from other conditions.

But the number of patients made to wait more than 12 hours for a hospital bed after doctors decided to admit them has rocketed from 1,111 to 10,646.

Omicron is good news 

Multiple studies now show Omicron is less dangerous than previous variants, raising hopes it may be possible finally to learn to live with the virus.

South Africa was able to lift its night-time curfew for the first time in 21 months in December after the Omicron wave peaked without overwhelming hospitals.

A study on hospital admissions in the country, where cases first accelerated, revealed it may be ten-times less deadly than previous variants.

The UK Health Security Agency said data shows people are half as likely to have to attend A&E or be admitted to hospital with Omicron as they are with Delta. And they say the risk of hospital admission alone for Omicron – which now accounts for nine in ten infections – is around a third of that for Delta.

Booster drive is key

The UK has given a booster to a higher proportion of its population than any EU country. Those boosted are eight times less likely to end up in hospital than those who are unvaccinated, UK Health Security Agency data shows.

Around 34.5million people in the UK have received a third dose of the vaccine, which helps protect them and reduces the chances of the NHS becoming overwhelmed with Covid patients.

People no longer have any protection against symptomatic infection from the variant 20 weeks after a second dose of AstraZeneca.

And vaccine effectiveness also wanes over the same period of time in Pfizer and Moderna jabs, down to just 10 per cent.

But the vaccine is 88 per cent effective at protecting against hospital admission two weeks after a booster shot, highlighting its importance.

Up to 90 per cent of patients in intensive care with Covid have not had their booster and over 60 per cent have not had any vaccine at all.


Ministers have sat on evidence justifying slashing self-isolation to just five days since last summer, according to critics who have demanded Boris Johnson drops the crippling rules that are paralysing the nation. 

Rail services and bin collections have ground to a halt with up to 1.3million Britons currently under house arrest, while the workforce crisis has left NHS bosses asking heart attack patients to make their own way to hospital

But the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal thinktank, said data published in August last year suggested it was safe to halve the quarantine period, which at the time stood at 10 days.

Oxford University research found 98 per cent of transmission occurs within the first five days of symptoms, and prompted experts on the topic to say the isolation period ‘could be much shorter’. 

Virologists said today that they agreed with the findings, with the vast majority of spread happening in the days before and after someone starts feeling ill.

And James Lawson, a fellow at the ASI, told MailOnline: ‘The research shows we can safely reduce the isolation period.  

‘Governments say they want to follow the science, yet are ignoring the changes in circumstances and much of the data we’ve had since last summer.’ 

He added: ‘The isolation period is having harmful unintended consequences, including putting more pressure on the NHS through staff shortages. It is also making it harder to keep schools open, maintain deliveries and so on, which undermine wider society.’

Mr Lawson also said it was time for No10 to ‘start trusting Britons’ to take sensible precautions and ‘forge a path back to normality, rather than adopting restrictions forever’.

Meanwhile, an NHS leader yesterday called for the period to be cut to five days if the science allows, saying any way to get staff back to work would be a ‘good thing’. 

A total of 24 out of 137 NHS trusts in England have declared critical incidents. Shown above are the trusts which have publically declared the incidents in the country, although all are not named

A total of 24 out of 137 NHS trusts in England have declared critical incidents. Shown above are the trusts which have publically declared the incidents in the country, although all are not named

Covid testing rules could be relaxed in an effort to combat the havoc wreaked on essential services across the country by thousands of key workers being stuck in self-isolation. Pictured: A deserted Waterloo Station at 08.15 on Monday

Covid testing rules could be relaxed in an effort to combat the havoc wreaked on essential services across the country by thousands of key workers being stuck in self-isolation. Pictured: A deserted Waterloo Station at 08.15 on Monday

As the number succumbing to the virus reached a record high, there were fears that staff absence due to Covid could become just as big a problem, with bin collections delayed, trains cancelled and several hospitals in Greater Manchester saying they would suspend non-urgent surgeries. Pictured: Overflowing bins in the Walton area of Liverpool on Tuesday

As the number succumbing to the virus reached a record high, there were fears that staff absence due to Covid could become just as big a problem, with bin collections delayed, trains cancelled and several hospitals in Greater Manchester saying they would suspend non-urgent surgeries. Pictured: Overflowing bins in the Walton area of Liverpool on Tuesday

Last month ministers trimmed the self-isolation period to seven days, providing someone tested negative using a lateral flow on days six and seven. But the Prime Minister is under huge pressure to follow the US, which squeezed quarantine to just five days for anyone without symptoms.

Business leaders yesterday warned that they too were struggling, with the managing director of supermarket Iceland saying their absence graph was ‘almost vertical’ and more than double the previous peak. 

Richard Walker, managing director of the chain, told Sky News: ‘I think it is fair to say that business is under strain as never before. This new variant seems to be a lot more contagious and that is having a big impact.

‘My call on government would be firstly to prioritise lateral flow tests for key workers including food retail front line shop workers, but also to revisit the onerous isolation rules.

Now No10 scraps pre-departure Covid swabs and says Day 2 tests do NOT have to be PCR

Boris Johnson yesterday axed the Covid travel testing scheme brought in to fight Omicron and asymptomatic people who test positive on lateral flow no longer need a follow-up PCR, in a bid to ration testing.

The Prime Minister told MPs in the Commons that fully vaccinated passengers entering the UK will no longer be required to take pre-departure tests from 4am on Friday.

Day 2 follow-up PCRs for UK arrivals are also being scrapped and replaced by lateral flows — saving people up to £60 per test — and people no longer need to isolate until they get a negative result.

If they test positive, however, they will have to take a PCR swab and self-isolate for up to 10 days if they are indeed positive.

Mr Johnson said the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease. 

The moves — which were welcomed by the struggling travel industry —  come after it was revealed confirmatory PCRs for asymptomatic cases who test positive on lateral flow will also be scrapped next week. 

The changes have been announced amid sky-high case numbers — with another 197,000 announced yesterday — and unprecedented demand for testing.

‘Seven days is a long time for people who are triple jabbed when the symptoms are for the vast majority of people not more than a common cold or mild flu.’

MPs and experts have also joined the growing chorus demanding a change in the rules, with other nations such as France and Greece having already cut it down to five days. 

Tory MP Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline earlier this week that the government faced a ‘tough’ choice, but the country was in the midst of a ‘semi-lockdown’ with a million Britons currently isolating after catching Covid.

He said cutting the quarantine period from seven to five days 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.’

Epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector, who runs Covid-tracking study ZOE, said the UK should follow suit to ‘protect the economy’.

And Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation — an organisation which represents trusts — said two more days should be shaved off the period as long as it was backed up by the science. 

He told BBC Radio 4: ‘As long as it is based on the science. Because on the one hand we do need to try to get staff back to work as soon as possible.

‘Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate — any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing.

‘But on the other hand, if staff come back into hospital and are infectious, that’s completely counterproductive because that is going to mean more sickness in the hospital and for staff, so this can’t be led by politics or blind hope — it has to be led by the science.

‘If the science says it is possible for people to go back to work earlier, then of course NHS leaders will want that to be possible.’

He suggested that people in quarantine could test themselves on days three, four and five, and come out of isolation on day five if they test negative.  

University of St Andrews’ researchers first raised the alarm bells about the length of quarantine in November 2020, discovering that the vast majority of Covid transmission happens during the first few days that someone is ill.

The paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet Microbe, was a review of 79 studies investigating how long someone is infectious for.

The team’s assertion that most people do no spread the virus after five days was based on research out of China and Taiwan — but only included several hundred patients.  

And in August last year Oxford University scientists said just two per cent of transmission happens from five days after warning signs appear.

The institute’s Pathogen Dynamics Group — which was involved in developing the NHS Test and Trace app — also found 40 per cent of transmission occurs before symptoms emerge, and 35 per cent within the first and second days of falling ill. 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated a record 3.27million people in England were infected on any given day in the week to December 31, up more than 60 per cent on the previous week

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated a record 3.27million people in England were infected on any given day in the week to December 31, up more than 60 per cent on the previous week

Even NHS bosses back cutting self-isolation period to FIVE days as staffing crisis sees hospitals CANCEL routine operations 

An NHS leader yesterday revealed he would support slashing Covid self-isolation to five days amid an escalating staffing crisis that has engulfed hospitals and led some to cancel routine operations. 

Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation — an organisation which represents trusts, said two more days should be shaved off the period as long as it was backed up by the science.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the situation was ‘desperate’ and any way of getting staff back to work was a ‘good thing’. But he said it would be ‘completely counterproductive’ to have infectious staff return to wards because it would exacerbate the spread of Omicron.

Last month ministers cut the self-isolation period to seven days, providing someone tested negative using a lateral flow on days six and seven. But pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to follow the US, which has squeezed quarantine to only five days for anyone without symptoms.

Around 1.3million Britons are currently thought to be languishing under house arrest as the NHS, rail services and bin collections all buckle under the weight of staff absences.

One in ten NHS employees are estimated to be off sick or self-isolating, and Mr Johnson yesterday revealed plans are being drawn up to call in the Army if the crisis continues to worsen.

Some 10 out of 137 hospital trusts in England have declared ‘critical incidents’ in recent days — or eight per cent, signalling that they may struggle to deliver vital care to patients in the coming weeks because so many medics are off isolating. Seventeen hospitals in Greater Manchester have also started shelving operations. 

For comparison, only about two per cent of transmission was recorded over the five to ten days after symptoms emerged.

Oxford University sources said the paper was shared with the Government before its results were released. It is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. It is unclear how many Covid cases the teams findings were based on. 

Neither team has yet to comment on whether isolation should be shortened in response to current pressures.

But UK Health Security Agency scientists say any further reduction would be ‘counterproductive’, arguing it risks sending infectious people back to work and spreading the virus further. 

The body, which replaced the now-defunct Public Health England, recommended the change because modelling showed it did not increase the risk of spreading the virus.

Professor Julian Tang, a virologist from Leicester University, told MailOnline: ‘I think the studies’ findings are right. Most transmission occurs just before and just after symptom onset.

‘Up to five to seven days post symptom onset the immune response kicks in, and starts to decrease the viral load.’

He suggested NHS workers could be allowed to return to their jobs from seven days after developing symptoms, regardless of whether they had tested positive. 

‘If they are a healthcare worker and they are going to be wearing masks at work all day, [the risk of transmission] may not matter much,’ Professor Tang added.

‘If they are a teacher going back to school to teach in a class of mostly vaccinated and masked children, it may not matter much.’

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline research suggests ‘the large majority of Covid infections are transmitted between two days before to three days after symptom onset’. 

‘That doesn’t mean infection after that is impossible just very unlikely,’ he said. 

‘Some risk remains for longer than five days but it is so small that continuing isolation beyond five days, whether or not LFD positive, is probably not justified except when in Contact with particularly vulnerable people,’ Professor Hunter added. 

Dr Alex Crozier, a researcher at University College London, told MailOnline the UK should not rely on lateral flow tests for its isolation policy, as they can ‘often take much longer than 10 days to materialise and we risk over-isolating people and exacerbating staffing issues this way’.

‘A lot of vaccinated people will continue to test positive beyond day five to seven via LFT, even once their symptoms have resolved and the risk of onwards transmission is really quite low,’  he said.

The vast majority of the population is double-jabbed and ‘many of us even have four or five doses of immunity now’, Dr Crozier said.  

‘We therefore have to interpret the results of antigen tests differently and carefully in three-dosed individuals,’ he said.

Dr Crozier added: ‘People testing negative a few days into symptoms doesn’t necessarily always mean they aren’t infectious, and testing positive post day five doesn’t necessarily mean they are significantly infectious.

‘There is a trade-off to be had and it is all about balancing different risks.

‘After testing positive, if symptoms have resolved for more than 24 to 48 hours and people have received the booster vaccine, we might be able to release them earlier than day 10, regardless of LFT status. 

‘If they still have some symptoms on day five then that is a different story. For critical roles, we can now probably move to a more flexible isolation policy, based on clinical expertise and context, not relying on just LFT status and blanket rules.’ 

Julian Jessop, economics fellow at the think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, told MailOnline that the case for easing the rules for mandatory isolation periods is ‘further is strengthening by the day’.  

He said: ‘Scientists are now more confident that the Omicron variant is milder, and that the risks of transmission drop off sharply within a few days. This reduces the benefits of lengthy isolation periods.

‘On the other side of the equation, the surge in the number testing positive for Covid is adding to the costs of isolation, since many more people are having to stay at home.’

Mr Jessop added: ‘It is hard to see how widespread staff shortages of 10 per cent or more will not have a crushing impact on output. Even just a 2 per cent reduction in activity would cost the economy about £4 billion every month.

‘It might be worth taking a large but temporary hit to GDP to protect health, and this could be better for the economy too in the long run. However, long isolation periods seem to be doing more harm than good – including to the NHS itself.

‘It is increasingly clear that the biggest threat to the NHS is a shortage of staff, due to the isolation rules, rather than a surge in the number of people who are seriously ill with Covid.

‘The UK government should therefore not hesitate to follow the trend elsewhere in Europe, the US and South Africa, and continue to ease the isolation rules. Reducing the minimum period from 7 to 5 days would be an obvious next step.’

Calling for self-isolation periods to be reduced, Matthew Taylor, the head of the NHS Confederation which represents trusts, said two more days could be shaved off.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday: ‘On the one hand we do need to try to get staff back to work as soon as possible.

‘Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate — any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing.

‘But on the other hand, if staff come back into hospital and are infectious, that’s completely counterproductive because that is going to mean more sickness in the hospital and for staff, so this can’t be led by politics or blind hope — it has to be led by the science.’

The areas worst affected by the self-isolation rules include: 

THE NHS

One in ten NHS staff are off sick or self-isolating. Bosses claim the shortages are making it ‘almost impossible’ to maintain basic patient care.

An ambulance trust asked patients with heart attacks and strokes to get a lift to hospital because it did not have enough fit paramedics.

The North East Ambulance Service Foundation Trust said call handlers should ‘consider asking the patient to be transported by friends or family’.

A message to staff said they were also having to ferry patients to hospital in taxis due to ‘unprecedented demand’.

Meanwhile at least eight hospital trusts have declared ‘critical incidents’, which means routine patient care is suffering and staff are being redeployed.

Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital had nearly 500 staff absent due to Covid. Morecambe Bay NHS Trust in Lancashire declared a critical incident due to the number of staff testing positive for coronavirus. Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, public health director for the region, said: ‘We are bracing ourselves for a tsunami of Omicron cases in Lancashire.’

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the staffing situation meant it was ‘becoming almost impossible’ to deal with ‘the most urgent and pressing needs’.

He told Times Radio that ‘the most pressing element of all’ is the number of staff who are absent due to the virus, rather than the number of Covid patients needing treatment.

Manchester, Birmingham, London, Cheshire and parts of Essex and Cumbria announced that bin collections would have to be missed or rearranged. Pictured: Festive period rubbish and recycling in Birmingham

Manchester, Birmingham, London, Cheshire and parts of Essex and Cumbria announced that bin collections would have to be missed or rearranged. Pictured: Festive period rubbish and recycling in Birmingham

BIN ROUNDS

Manchester, Birmingham, London, Cheshire and parts of Essex and Cumbria announced that bin collections would have to be missed or rearranged.

In Birmingham, rubbish was left to pile high in the streets.

Pavel Bartos, 23, of Aston, said residents had been waiting since before Christmas to have their bins emptied. ‘It’s been a nightmare and the place has been left looking like a complete tip,’ he said.

‘It is an absolute eyesore and we thought they would be collected by now, but they haven’t. It’s like living in a slum.

‘We were told the Christmas collections would be missed due to staff shortages but to be four days into the New Year and is still look like this is really bad.’

North Somerset Council was unable to pick up 1,000 recycling bins on New Year’s Eve because of staff illness. A spokesman for the Local Government Association called for council workers to be prioritised for Covid tests.

Operators had already been forced to slash dozens of daily services due to around one in ten rail staff calling in sick. Some train firms will now run reduced services for several weeks. Pictured: Victoria train station yesterday

Operators had already been forced to slash dozens of daily services due to around one in ten rail staff calling in sick. Some train firms will now run reduced services for several weeks. Pictured: Victoria train station yesterday

Rail commuters were hit with disruption on the first working day of the year thanks to staff shortages, slashed timetables and faults with trains and tracks

Rail commuters were hit with disruption on the first working day of the year thanks to staff shortages, slashed timetables and faults with trains and tracks

TRAINS

Rail commuters were hit with disruption on the first working day of the year thanks to staff shortages, slashed timetables and faults with trains and tracks.

Operators had already been forced to slash dozens of daily services due to around one in ten rail staff calling in sick. Some train firms will now run reduced services for several weeks.

TransPennine Express cancelled 24 trains on Tuesday, while CrossCountry has removed around 50 daily services until next week.

LNER, which runs on the East Coast Main Line, has slashed 12 services a day between London and Leeds until Friday.

Southern is not running any services in and out of London Victoria until January 10.

The Gatwick Express, which resumed only three weeks ago after an 18-month closure, has been suspended indefinitely. ScotRail will cut around 160 trains from its normal 2,000 a day until January 28, meaning fewer services in and out of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Meanwhile Transport for Wales cancelled almost 100 trains, including services between Newport and Crosskeys and Chester and Liverpool Lime Street.

CARE HOMES

Mike Padgham, chairman of the Independent Care Group, which represents care homes in Yorkshire, said the staffing challenge ‘is now at the worst it has been throughout the pandemic’.

He said some care homes and home care providers are struggling to operate and called on the Government to appeal for retired nurses, doctors, and carers to come forward so they can help struggling social care services.

In a letter to ministers, he said: ‘As you know, we need a fully functioning social care sector to ensure that NHS hospital care can function effectively and not be overwhelmed because people cannot be discharged to care settings.

‘At the moment, that cannot be guaranteed and I fear the setting up of surge hubs is not a long-term solution as they too will be struggling for staff.’

Pupils are returning to the classroom after the Christmas break, with advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face masks in lessons due to a rise in coronavirus cases. Pictured: Pupils work in a classroom at The Fulham Boys School on the first day after the Christmas holidays

Pupils are returning to the classroom after the Christmas break, with advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face masks in lessons due to a rise in coronavirus cases. Pictured: Pupils work in a classroom at The Fulham Boys School on the first day after the Christmas holidays

SCHOOLS

School leaders told of their worries that staff shortages could worsen and cause further disruption to children’s education.

Union leaders warned of a ‘stressful time’ ahead as existing teacher absences on the first day of term could become even more ‘challenging’ in the weeks ahead. Some schools are reporting that around one in five staff members could be missing at the start of term.

Pupils are returning to the classroom after the Christmas break, with advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face masks in lessons due to a rise in coronavirus cases. Secondary and college students are also being encouraged to test on site before going back to class.

Some could end up wearing coats in lessons in the weeks ahead as heads and academy leaders increase ventilation to help keep classrooms safe.


Furious tourism bosses today blasted Rishi Sunak for ‘leaving them in the cold’ after the industry was excluded from his new £1billion Covid support package.  

The Chancellor has announced grants of up to £6,000 per premises for hospitality and leisure firms being crippled by a wave of cancellations following the emergence of the Omicron strain. 

The taxpayer will also cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences for companies with fewer than 250 employees. 

However, there was nothing of note for tourism firms, despite surging cancellations for overseas trips amid tougher testing and self-isolation rules for people arriving in the UK.

Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: ‘It is devastating to see that once again business travel and its supply chain have been left out of Government financial support.

‘It’s imperative that the arts, hospitality and leisure are given help through the latest wave of the pandemic. However, a vital part of the UK economy and the driver behind global Britain is being left in the cold.

‘We urgently need the Treasury to correct this oversight and support our industry into 2022. This is the only way for there to be a safe return to international travel when conditions allow.’

Luke Petherbridge, director of public affairs for travel trade organisation Abta, claimed Mr Sunak’s announcement ‘ignores the direct impact of Government policy decisions on businesses reliant on international travel’.

He said: ‘Travel agents, tour operators and travel management companies will rightly be asking why they haven’t been given the same treatment as other businesses that are suffering at this time.

‘Average annual revenue across the travel industry is down by nearly 80% on pre-crisis levels even before Omicron emerged, and the reintroduction of enhanced testing – both pre and post-arrival – have added significant costs and notably dampened consumer demand.

‘As the sector approaches what should be the peak sales period for booking holidays for summer 2022, businesses are instead facing another round of heart-breaking and demoralising cancellations, with no indication that the Government is listening to the challenges they are facing.’

Mr Petherbridge urged the Government to lift ‘unnecessary travel restrictions’ immediately, provide grants to the travel sector which are similar to those announced for hospitality, and consider the need for the furlough scheme to be reintroduced.

Rain Newton-Smith, CBI chief economist, said the international travel and tourism sector ‘remains disappointingly out of scope despite the heavy toll it has taken for many months’.

The move came as another 90,629 Covid cases were recorded in 24 hours, along with 172 deaths. A further 15,363 infections with the Omicron variant have bee confirmed, bringing the total to 60,508. 

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street today) has stepped back from imposing punitive lockdown curbs that would have ruined Christmas

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street today) has stepped back from imposing punitive lockdown curbs that would have ruined Christmas

The rush hour at King's Cross in London was quieter than normal this morning amid Covid concerns and with Christmas just a few days away

The rush hour at King’s Cross in London was quieter than normal this morning amid Covid concerns and with Christmas just a few days away 

Other sectors were equally scathing, with arts bosses describing the level of support as ‘inadequate’ and ‘bordering on the insulting’.

The Treasury announced that cultural organisations in England can access a further £30 million funding during the winter via the culture recovery fund.

The £1.57 billion CRF was launched in July 2020 with the objective of protecting Britain’s cultural, arts and heritage institutions.

Groups criticised the extent of the support and the decision to distribute it through the fund, saying a system of emergency support packages is instead needed.

The announcement follows a string of cancelled theatre performances, with The Lion King and Life Of Pi among the West End shows having to dim their lights due to Covid-enforced staff shortages, as well as a fall in attendance at grassroots live music venues.

Mark Davyd, founder and chief executive of Music Venue Trust, said: ‘We will need to see further details on the £30 million package announced to support the cultural sector. Our initial response is that this funding seems detached from the reality.

‘If correct, it would be inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem – we note that grassroots music venues are not even mentioned in the statement despite DCMS having all the evidence they need that losses in this sector alone will run to £22 million by end of January.’

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, described the newly-announced support as ‘far too little’.

He said: ‘Businesses are failing, people are losing their livelihoods and the industry is crippled. Mixed messaging, coupled with additional restrictions, have had a catastrophic impact on our sector over the last two weeks.

‘At this critical point, we need strong leadership and a clear pathway from Government with a long-term strategy for new Covid variants.

‘The open/close strategy is crucifying businesses. Every pound of help is much needed. But this package is far too little and borders on the insulting.’

Theatres Trust director Jon Morgan welcomed the announcement of mandatory grants.

He said: ‘The additional mandatory grants of up to £6,000 are also welcome and will be particularly helpful to smaller theatres. We hope that both funds are distributed as quickly as possible to help protect theatres.

‘Theatres across the country are already struggling with shows being cancelled due to infections and falling ticket sales, as audiences follow Government advice to be cautious, so this support is very much needed.’

Paul W Fleming, general secretary of Equity, the trade union for performing arts workers, said: ‘The lack of financial support for the creative workforce in today’s announcement from the Chancellor is a shocking example of Government negligence when Equity members are staring into a winter of cancelled shows, bookings and performances.

‘Many producers, workplaces and artists are ineligible for Cultural Recovery Funding. Instead of another inadequate, vague, headline deal for bosses and buildings, we need an urgent plan to protect all those working in theatre and entertainment industries during this critical Christmas season.’

He said these should include a new furlough scheme for performers and stage management, increasing statutory sick pay and extending it to self-employed taxpayers, and targeted support for creative team members, entertainers and variety artists through new grants.

Head of theatre workers union Bectu, Philippa Childs, said the support would arrive too slowly if it was distributed through the CRF.

She said: ‘The Culture Recovery Fund is not equipped to deal with the rapid response necessary to alleviate the current Covid crisis for theatres and live events. It is focused on buildings not people, is too cumbersome and too slow.

‘We need an emergency support package for our members who are facing another Christmas of work cancellations and uncertainty.’

Greg Parmley, chief executive of Live, which represents music industry venues and the entertainment sector including companies, artists and backstage workers, said: ‘We welcome the news that the Government has started to deliver much-needed financial support, but with the live music sector teetering on the brink, the package falls short of the urgent cash injection businesses need to keep them afloat.

‘The amount of money pales in comparison to the mounting losses faced by the sector and the process will add layers of complexity at a time when businesses are already struggling with skeleton staff rotas and huge losses.’

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said on Twitter: ‘This is vital support that won’t just help protect our cherished theatres, museums & heritage sites, but the tens of thousands of people who work in them.

‘It’s important that we give as much support as we can to creative institutions and ensure that they are still there, standing strong to keep people employed, informed and entertained.’

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Julian Knight welcomed further support but called for clarity on the likelihood of an imminent lockdown.

He said: ‘More crucial still will be giving clarity for what the likely outlook for Covid restrictions is in the short and medium term.

‘You cannot simply start and stop a production or tour with a few days notice. They need to be planned and are dependent on a reasonable assessment of whether enough people can see it to be financially viable.

‘While additional money is welcome we must also give the entertainment sector the best possible chance of being up and running on its own. Without more clarity this will not be possible.’

Empty tables and chairs at a restaurant in London's West End last night as the hospitality sector faces another crisis

Empty tables and chairs at a restaurant in London’s West End last night as the hospitality sector faces another crisis

A near-deserted Tube train this morning - with London Mayor Sadiq Khan having already cancelled the New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square

A near-deserted Tube train this morning – with London Mayor Sadiq Khan having already cancelled the New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square  

Other businesses groups welcomes the package, however, though they warned that more might be needed if ministers tighten restrictions. 

‘We are pleased that the Chancellor heard our call for additional grant funding for hospitality and leisure businesses, which will provide some much-needed support in the face of this increasingly difficult trading period,’ said British Chambers of Commerce director general Shevaun Haviland.

‘Clarity and speed will be needed to ensure that these grants are paid out swiftly to help these hard-pressed firms weather the next few weeks.

‘Whilst these measures are a positive starting point, if restrictions persist or are tightened further, then we would need to see a wider support package, equal to the scale of any new measures, put in place.’

The package has promised another £1 billion of financial support for hospitality and leisure companies hit by the recent surge in Covid cases following the emergence of the Omicron strain of the virus.

Businesses will be able to get one-off grants worth up to £6,000 per premises that they run, the Treasury said on Tuesday.

Companies with fewer than 250 staff will also be allowed to claim back up to two weeks worth of statutory sick pay for each employee who gets the virus.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, said the packages would be particularly good for small businesses and will secure jobs in the short term.

‘This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated,’ she said.

She added: ‘There is now a real urgency in getting this funding to businesses so we urge local authorities to prioritise distribution of funds to make sure jobs and businesses are preserved through this difficult period.’

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chairman Mike Cherry said: ‘With the prospect of one million people sick or self-isolating by January, we encouraged the Chancellor to bring back the Covid statutory sick pay rebate – we’re pleased to see our recommendation taken forward today.

‘This move will reduce stress for small employers up and down the country, helping those who are struggling most with depleted cashflow.

‘It’s vital that small firms, once again up against a massively disrupted festive season, can reclaim the costs of supporting staff.’

Meanwhile, independent businesses have said the latest package of support will not be enough to help them through a difficult Christmas period, with lower footfall seen in cafes and shops as consumers try to avoid the new Omicron variant. 

Rachel Hutchinson, owner of The Rock Fairy Limited, a rock and roll-themed zero-waste shop and sustainable cafe based in Afflecks, Manchester, said her business was excluded from government support during previous lockdowns and that as ‘we started getting new variants, trade has steadily plummeted since September really’.

‘This month has been insane, it should be the busiest time of year. Today we opened at 10.30am and we’ve taken £6,’ she said.

She added that shoppers needed to feel safe, and many regular customers were avoiding the shop because they wanted to safeguard festive family plans but that her trade had fallen by 60%.

‘The six grand, it doesn’t cover what we’ve lost, so it’s certainly not going to cover what we stand to lose as well if they lock us down,’ she said.

Ms Hutchinson added that it would ‘just about’ help the company through Christmas.

Andrew Murray, director of independent brewers the Twisted Brewing Company in Westbury, Wiltshire, said: ‘I’m obviously disappointed and concerned about getting through the next two months because ordinarily we see trade has a downturn in January/February post-Christmas, and normally our Christmas trade would take us through and see us through that.

‘Unfortunately, we’ve seen our trade decimated this week and last week and we’re certainly not expecting anything next week, so the last few weeks of Christmas trade have been decimated by what the Government have said or not said really.’

He added that trade was 60% lower than expected takings in a normal December and that the firm was trying to ‘pivot to supplying people direct’ as they had during the lockdowns but that the changes in trade caused by Omicron had taken the business ‘unawares’ as they had not prepared to change their entire business model over ‘without any financial support from the Government’.

He said that the Treasury offer of support would be ‘very welcome’ but added that he doubted if this would include suppliers to the hospitality industry and that they would therefore face ‘a long cold winter ahead of us’ where suppliers would need to ‘throw ourselves at the mercy of our local authorities’.

Meletius Michael, founder of Meletius Coffee in Islington, London, said: ‘We’re moving our premises to just a roasters and not a coffee shop, because I just knew that there were going to be more restrictions and no help, so as soon as Plan B came we had already lost 50% of our turnover per day so it’s just not viable.’

He added that he would be closing the coffee shop on Friday and that footfall at his premises was down, although the surrounding area was busy.

‘All of a sudden people become more hesitant and they’re scared to come inside a shop’, he said, adding that the weekend before Plan B was announced the shop’s takings had been £600 from coffee and £300 the week afterwards.

While the overall business was doing well, he added that ‘partially the reason for the shop closing is because of restrictions’.

He said that the Treasury grant ‘doesn’t help us at all – £6,000 is nothing’.

‘In any business, 50% of your outgoings is your salary on payroll, so £6,000 is literally covering a very small dent – it needed to be furlough scheme at a minimum or a much higher grant’.

He added that at a minimum, £25,000 would be needed to cover Christmas and that the amount announced was ‘hilarious to us’.

It came as Boris Johnson tonight declared that Christmas can definitely go ahead ‘cautiously’ – but warned that there are no guarantees about the New Year. 

Amid rising anger that millions of people are being left in limbo, the PM completely ruled out any further curbs being introduced before December 25.

But he gave notice that the government is still monitoring the ‘finely balanced’ situation with Omicron ‘very carefully’ and is ‘ready to take action’ afterwards if necessary.   

The short-term clarity came after Nicola Sturgeon dramatically cancelled large-scale New Year celebrations in Scotland, reintroducing limits on households mixing, table service in hospitality and crowds at major events.

Meanwhile, another 90,629 Covid cases were recorded in 24 hours across the UK, along with 172 deaths. A further 15,363 infections with the Omicron variant have been confirmed, bringing the total to 60,508 – although the pace of spread looks potentially slower than initially feared.  

There has been heavy criticism of the claim from SAGE modellers that deaths could reach 6,000 a day in the worst scenario, and although daily cases have been rising sharply and topped 100,000 on December 15 they are still short of the levels feared. 

Leading statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter has also pointed out that around half of new Covid admissions in Omicron hotspot London only tested positive after arriving at hospital, possibly for a different ailment – although he stressed they would still add to pressure on the health service.

Official figures out today reveal that Covid was mentioned on 764 death certificates registered in England and Wales in the week to December 10 – 4 per cent down from the previous week and the lowest level since October. 

Mr Sunak finally unveiled the support for businesses after bars and restaurants were left deserted following increasingly grim warnings from Chris Whitty and other experts. The spending will make another dent in the public finances, after new figures revealed today that borrowing has risen above forecasts with the economy stalling. 

A survey by Ipsos MORI revealed a majority of Britons are now taking matters into their own hands to reduce their chances of catching coronavirus, with 58 per cent saying they have avoided public transport or plan to do so, and 57 per cent saying the same about going to pubs and restaurants, and social gatherings with friends and family. 

Local authorities will administer the £683million of hospitality and leisure grants, with 200,000 businesses set to benefit – although the criteria do not seem clear. Another £102million will go into discretionary funds, again controlled by town halls, and the emergency fund for cultural organisations will get a £30million boost. 

The devolved administrations will receive around £150million of funding through the Barnett formula as part of the support announced, with around £80million for the Scottish Government, £50million for the Welsh Government and £25million for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Mr Sunak gave a strong hint that the government will go further if more restrictions are needed, saying they cannot ‘rule anything out’.

‘People will be able to look at our track record over the last year or two and supporting people and businesses, especially in the hospitality industry throughout this crisis,’ he told journalists.

‘I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face. People can have confidence in that.

‘Where we are now we’ve responded, I think, generously today, the grants that we’ve outlined up to £6,000 are comparable to the grants that we provided for hospitality businesses when they were completely closed earlier this year. So, there’s a benchmark for you.

‘Also, it’s important to remember we have support already in place that lasts all the way to next spring.

‘So, for example, a reduced rate of VAT for the hospitality and tourism sectors, and this year they are benefiting from a 75 per cent discount on their business rates bill. Those types of things last all the way to next March to support the industry.’   

On another intense day of coronavirus drama:

  • Thousands more people could be released from isolation in time for Christmas as ministers prepare to cut the period from 10 days to seven days; 
  • Sir Jeremy Farrar, a former member of SAGE, has backed the position of waiting for another day to see updated evidence on Omicron;  
  • Mr Johnson’s personal rating have slumped again, with YouGov finding a net minus 48 think he is performing well – down from minus 35 last month. Just 22 per cent approve of the government with 60 per cent disapproving; 
  • The NHS has given a million Covid jabs in a single day for the first time, but still appears to be off the pace to hit the New Year target on boosters;
  • London’s New Year’s Eve celebration event in Trafalgar Square has been axed with Sadiq Khan urging people to watch TV instead.
The latest YouGov research has found just 22 per cent approve of the government, with 60 per cent disapproving

The latest YouGov research has found just 22 per cent approve of the government, with 60 per cent disapproving

A queue for a vaccination centre at Hampden Park in Glasgow today, with Nicola Sturgeon due to announce whether more restrictions will be brought in for Scotland after Christmas

A queue for a vaccination centre at Hampden Park in Glasgow today, with Nicola Sturgeon due to announce whether more restrictions will be brought in for Scotland after Christmas  

Sturgeon cancels New Year in Scotland over Omicron fears 

Nicola Sturgeon today cancelled large scale New Year celebrations in Scotland as she unveiled additional coronavirus restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Scottish First Minister said the advice for Christmas Day remains unchanged, with people allowed to meet with family but urged to be cautious.

But from December 26 for three weeks there will be attendance limits placed on live public events which will torpedo Hogmanay events.

The limits will not apply to private life events like weddings, but Ms Sturgeon said for indoor standing events the limit will be 100 people, for indoor seated events it will be 200 and for outdoor events 500 seated or standing.

This will mean that from Boxing Day football and other sporting matches in Scotland will effectively be spectator-free.

Ms Sturgeon also said that from December 27 the Scottish Government is advising people to return to limiting their social contacts ‘as much as you possibly can’ as she urged to nation to ‘please stay at home’.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UKHospitality industry body, said: ‘This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated.

‘It will help to secure jobs and business viability in the short term, particularly among small businesses in the sector, and we particularly welcome the boost to funds for the supply chain and event and business catering companies so badly affected by the reintroduction of work from home guidelines.

‘There is now a real urgency in getting this funding to businesses so we urge local authorities to prioritise distribution of funds to make sure jobs and businesses are preserved through this difficult period.’

The president of British Chambers of Commerce, Conservative peer Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, called for clarity on who will be eligible.

She told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: ‘We asked very much for grant support, so we are delighted that grant support has been given, but we don’t know yet the definition of eligible businesses and companies.’

She added: ‘I think it is a good start. Our concern is around the fact that we need business confidence and we have got uncertainty.

‘We need to know that we can stay open and continue to trade and consumers will return.’

But shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves complained that the government had been ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ to offering support.

‘The PM continues to be too distracted by revolt from Tory backbenchers to act in the public interest. Businesses and workers are crying out for clarity on what restrictions are down the road as many continue to be hit hard,’ she said. 

Senior Tories have hailed the decision to avoid immediate restrictions, while some scientists accused Mr Johnson of ‘caving in’ to sceptics in the Cabinet after ‘losing authority’ following a series of scandals.

In a statement released on video this evening, Mr Johnson said he wanted to give clarity for people on what to do at on December 25.

‘What this means is that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans but the situation remains finely balanced and I would urge everyone to exercise caution, to keep protecting yourselves and your loved ones, especially the vulnerable,’ he said.

‘And remember to keep following the guidance – wear a mask indoors when required to do so, keep fresh air circulating, and take a test before you visit elderly or vulnerable relatives.’ 

Covid cases have remained flat since last Friday when they hit a peak of more than 93,000. 

The slowing statistics may be behind Mr Johnson’s decision not to bring any tougher restrictions before Christmas.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that Mr Johnson had made the right decision as he slammed the modelling.

He said: ‘It’s not all doom and gloom, it does look like Omicron has stopped growing. The numbers over the last few days seem to have plateaued and maybe even be falling.

‘It’s a bit too soon to be absolutely sure about that, but if it is the case Boris Johnson will breathe a sigh of relief. We have to be a little bit careful because it’s only a few days.

‘And because we’re getting closer to Christmas there is nervousness that people may not come forward for testing because they don’t want to test positive and miss out on meeting relatives.

‘Omicron overtook the other variants around December 14 so most of any changes from there on would be down to Omicron. So if it was still doubling every two days that would have shown and we should have been at 200,000 cases yesterday and certainly more than 200,000 cases today.

UK records more than 100,000 daily cases for first time  

The UK recorded more than 100,000 Covid cases in a single day for the first time ever last week, new data shows after the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

A total of 102,297 people tested positive for the virus last Wednesday, according to backdated Government figures — marking the first time they have risen above triple digits officially since the start of the pandemic.

The figure looks at positive cases by ‘specimen date’, the day someone took the test, and is different from daily reported cases announced by Government every day, which looks at when someone received their result. 

It can take up to five days for the number of positive tests on any single day to be fully counted so more days where Covid cases have breached 100,000 may emerge in the coming days.    

But case numbers are still well below the projections of gloomy Government modelling which said there were up to 400,000 infections a day last week and that this could rise to 1million by the peak this winter.

Doubts about No10 scientific projections are believed to be the reason Boris Johnson has pumped the brakes on a Christmas lockdown, with ministers waiting for more concrete data on the variant. 

Last Friday, the Department of Health reported 93,045 new Covid cases. Cases have barely moved in four days and a record 1.5million Britons are being tested for the virus every day currently, which suggests the issue is not a lack of tests.  

‘But the fact it has been around 91,000 raises the point that it might actually have peaked. But it will probably take until at least Wednesday to get an idea of a day that is not affected by the weekend. But I am more optimistic than I was a few days ago.

There were 1.49million tests conducted today which is down from 1.56 million last Wednesday, but Professor Hunter said the ‘relatively small drop’ in testing would not hide a virus truly doubling every two days.

Latest hospital figures show there were 847 Covid admissions on December 17, up only 7 per cent on the previous week. There were a further 172 Covid deaths today, up 14 per cent. 

In epicentre London the wave also appears to be slowing after 20,491 cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, down slightly on yesterday’s tally of 22,750. It also marked the sixth day in a row cases have been above 20,000.

Hospitalisations in the capital are rising with another 245 registered today, up 56 per cent in a week, but MailOnline analysis showed up to a quarter of these are not primarily Covid.  

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg is understood to have urged the government during the Cabinet meeting yesterday to ‘trust people’ to respond to the alarm about the rapid spread of the new strain, rather than bringing back draconian laws.

Mr Johnson is said to have cautioned that explanation will not wash if the NHS is at serious risk of being underwhelmed, but eventually went with the majority view among his team. Critics said he had ‘caved in’, although No10 denied that he was overruled, stressing he did not make any firm proposal. 

Mr Johnson was boosted by Sir Jeremy Farrar, a former member of SAGE, backing the position of waiting for another day to see updated figures on hospitalisations. He told the Today programme that ‘each of us can do things today that will make the chance of further restrictions lighter’.

Commons sources said that there was ‘chaos’ coming out of Downing Street about whether they should expect a recall over the Christmas period. 

After government borrowing for November came in higher than predicted this morning, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay highlighted the ‘economic consequences’ of more restrictions. 

Mr Barclay told BBC Breakfast: ‘The Prime Minister has given a commitment that where there are additional regulations bought forward that Parliament would be recalled in order that Members of Parliament can scrutinise and debate those issues, but we are not at that stage.

‘We are looking closely at the data and we need to recognise there are economic consequences to further restrictions.’

With plans for the two-week ‘circuit breaker’ still said to be on the table, Mr Johnson last night warned he had to ‘reserve the possibility’ of further restrictions to control the spread of Omicron. 

However he admitted the data was not clear enough to justify action now.

The PM has promised to consult parliament on any new legal curbs and it is highly unlikely that MPs could be recalled in time to act before the Christmas break. 

A row erupted yesterday over modelling that had appeared to raise the threat of Christmas being ‘cancelled’ for a second year.

In forecasts leaked over the weekend, the SAGE committee cited modelling that without rapid action daily deaths could hit 6,000 in the worst case – and hospital admissions 10,000.

But with huge uncertainty over the severity of Omicron, ministers, MPs and experts rejected the ‘implausible’ predictions.

Tory former leader Iain Duncan Smith referred to SAGE modeller Graham Medley as ‘Graham Meddler’ during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, although it was not clear if it was a slip of the tongue. 

Mr Duncan Smith said the government should only make a decision based on a ‘wider range of information on the effect of lockdown’.  

‘We need to understand the effect of lockdown is dramatic across so many areas of people’s lives, which equates to the same as people going into hospital,’ he said.

Sir Jeremy, head of the Wellcome Trust, said people could take personal responsibility.

‘Omicron is spreading unbelievably fast. It is a phenomenal variant transmission,’ he said.

‘There is great uncertainty about what is it going to lead to in terms of pressure on the health system, people going to hospital, particularly people dying, but also what impact is it going to have on the broader society, staff absences, the ability to have functioning other services, so there is great uncertainty.

‘My personal view is that I think we can wait at the moment until there are more restrictions formally placed.’ 

Could the New Year see a ban on socialising indoors and the Rule of Six outside? 

Speculation is mounting that the government could impose a a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in England after Christmas. 

Ministers and officials have apparently pencilled in December 28 as a possible date to trigger the new curbs. 

The preparations come after SAGE suggested which would effectively re-impose ‘Step 2’ of Boris Johnson’s old lockdown exit roadmap for two weeks.   

It is unclear which parts of ‘Step 2’ could be included but a crackdown on indoor social contact is viewed as the most likely move. 

Below is a breakdown of the measures included in the old ‘Step 2’ which was in force in April this year.  

Ban on indoor socialising: People were not allowed to socialise indoors, except with members of the same household. The rule of six applied outdoors.

Curbs on hospitality: Bars, pubs and restaurants were closed indoors but could serve people outdoors where the rule of six applied.  

Shops: All retail remained open, including hairdressers, beauty and nail salons. 

Domestic travel: People were advised to minimise travel as much as possible. 

Education: Early years settings, schools and colleges were open for all students.     

Mr Barclay said there had been a ‘robust discussion’ at Cabinet about how to respond to the Omicron threat.

 ‘We are looking closely at the data, there is much we still don’t know about the severity of Omicron, how it leads to hospital admissions,’ he said.

‘We are looking particularly at the London data, there is a higher prevalence of Omicron particularly in London.’

Asked if he had been among members of the Cabinet calling for more data, Mr Barclay said: ‘I think it is right that the Cabinet has a full and robust discussion.

‘That is what people would expect. It is right that we look at the balance between protecting lives and livelihoods.’

Covid behind just one in 16 deaths in England and Wales, latest figures show

Covid was behind just one in 16 deaths in England and Wales in the two weeks after Omicron first hit Britain as Covid fatalities hit a two-month low, official figures revealed today.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows just 764 of the nearly 12,000 fatalities recorded in the two nations were linked with the virus in the seven days up to December 10.

The weekly Covid fatalities is the lowest figure recorded in two months, since 713 were registered in the week to October 15.

These deaths — which include any fatality where the virus was mentioned on the certificate — were recorded in the two weeks after the first Omicron infections were identified in the UK.

Covid deaths are the biggest lagging indicator of trends in infection rates, because it takes three to four weeks for an infected person to die from the virus.

How deadly the surge in Omicron cases turns out to be remains to be seen, with uncertainties about how severe it is or how well vaccines protect against serious outcomes.

Those key unknowns combined with rising cases have put festive plans into doubt, despite the Prime Minister so far holding off imposing extra Covid curbs before Christmas.

 

However, Mr Barclay told LBC he had downsized the number of family members at his own Christmas celebrations this year, with only his in-laws attending.

He disclosed that Mr Sunak will give more details of support for businesses later. 

‘The Chancellor was talking to industry leaders about this very issue last night. We will say more about this later today,’ he said.

‘We recognise obviously we are keen to keep businesses open and businesses should continue to plan for the bookings they have.

‘We absolutely recognise that through Plan B and the behaviour change there has been an impact on those bookings.’ 

Several ministers – including Mr Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – made clear they were unwilling to back further restrictions until there was better information on the impact of Omicron.

Mr Sunak is understood to have resisted measures that could cost the economy billions ‘off the back of data that is patchy’. The most vocal supporters of a strong response are believed to have been Communities Secretary Michael Gove and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

Afterwards Mr Johnson insisted the Government was monitoring the data ‘hour by hour’ and that the arguments for taking action were ‘very, very finely balanced’.

But he stressed there are still ‘uncertainties’ around the severity of the new strain, as well as the rate of hospital admissions associated with it and its impact on vaccines.

He added: ‘Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS. We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.’

Ministers were briefed at the virtual Cabinet meeting by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.

Ms Truss apparently demanded ministers were given ‘really thorough data’ before approving curbs, and insisted there must be ‘incontrovertible evidence that we need more restrictions’.

Other ministers voicing similar concerns included Mr Rees-Mogg, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack.

Ms Sturgeon today cancelled large scale New Year celebrations in Scotland as she unveiled additional coronavirus restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Scottish First Minister said the advice for Christmas Day remains unchanged, with people allowed to meet with family but urged to be cautious.

But from December 26 for three weeks there will be attendance limits placed on live public events which will torpedo Hogmanay events.

The limits will not apply to private life events like weddings, but Ms Sturgeon said for indoor standing events the limit will be 100 people, for indoor seated events it will be 200 and for outdoor events 500 seated or standing.

This will mean that from Boxing Day football and other sporting matches in Scotland will effectively be spectator-free.

Ms Sturgeon also said that from December 27 the Scottish Government is advising people to return to limiting their social contacts ‘as much as you possibly can’ as she urged to nation to ‘please stay at home’.

Ms Sturgeon appeared to fire a shot at the Prime Minister as she said ‘we know from experience that if we wait until the data tells us conclusively that we have a problem… it will already be too late to act to avoid that problem’. 

A very quiet road in London's West End last night as people stay at home with just days to go until Christmas

A very quiet road in London’s West End last night as people stay at home with just days to go until Christmas

Government borrowing came in above expectations at £17.4billion – only £4.9billion below last year and the second highest on record

Graph shows London's daily Covid cases by date reported. It reveals they initially shot up when Omicron first emerged, but may now be stabalising despite predictions that infections are doubling every two to three days

Graph shows London’s daily Covid cases by date reported. It reveals they initially shot up when Omicron first emerged, but may now be stabalising despite predictions that infections are doubling every two to three days

The above graph shows Covid cases recorded in the UK by specimen date, which is the date that a test was carried out. It reveals 100,000 people who took swabs last Wednesday tested positive for the virus

The above graph shows Covid cases recorded in the UK by specimen date, which is the date that a test was carried out. It reveals 100,000 people who took swabs last Wednesday tested positive for the virus

Covid isolation could be cut to seven days 

Ministers are set to announce a major shake-up of Covid rules by slashing the number of self-isolation days to seven, in a bid to stop staff shortages grinding the country to a halt this Christmas.

Government experts are reportedly set to agree new advice which will see the self-isolation period cut by three days – bring it down from 10 days to seven.

However those self-isolating will need to have negative lateral flow tests on day six and seven in order to be eligible for early release.

It comes after epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson earlier this week backed the change, saying it would ‘not reduce the effectiveness of the measures that much’ if coupled with testing.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has also reportedly been pushing hard for the reduction. An announcement is expected ‘imminently’.

A Cabinet source said: ‘There is more data coming on Wednesday, so that should make hopefully the picture a bit clearer and decisions easier to make.’  

Tory former chief whip Mark Harper said that ‘not telling the public what’s going on is unacceptable’ as he said ‘we can do so much better than this’. 

SAGE social behaviour expert Stephen Reicher lashed out at Mr Johnson today, saying he had ‘caved in’ to lockdown-sceptic ministers and Tory MPs.

‘The arguments are very very finely balanced says ‘do nothing’ Johnson. On the one hand you have a scientific consensus that current measures are inadequate and that action is needed now. You have the NHS crying out in alarm. You have businesses crying out for support,’ Prof Reicher said. 

‘On the other hand you have the right of the Tory Party which threatens rebellion. And the Prime Minister, who has lost political authority over his own party, just as he has lost moral authority over the country, caves in to the latter That’s not balanced It’s completely unhinged.’ 

Mr Johnson was under pressure from his SAGE experts to roll out extra curbs after they delivered dire warnings about what will happen if the PM fails to act urgently. 

But other experts today slammed as ‘fictitious’ projections of 6,000 daily Covid deaths and 10,000 hospitalisations this winter in a worst-case scenario. 

Coronavirus cases have also been around the 90,000 mark for four days now, after experts predicted they would double every two days. 

It has also emerged that ministers are considering slashing isolation for those with Covid from 10 days to seven days due to fears Omicron will cripple the economy.   

According to Government modelling, up to 2million people could be catching the ultra-transmissible variant per day during the peak this winter.

There are growing fears it could push the country into a de facto lockdown with so many isolating with mild illness, even if hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

Sources say the change in policy is ‘being looked at’ and Health Secretary Sajid Javid is thought to be eager to shorten the isolation timeframe as hospitals and businesses struggle due to absent workers.

The lack of a final decision by Mr Johnson on extra curbs means it now seems unlikely that further restrictions will be rolled out before Christmas but there are mounting fears of a crackdown immediately after December 25. 

The PM has promised that MPs will get a vote on any additional rules but Parliament is now in recess and recalling the House of Commons, holding a debate and then voting would take an estimated 48 hours. 

Announcing curbs any later than today would therefore run the risk of people being told to follow new rules after they have already travelled to see family for Christmas. 

The Times reported that Mr Johnson and the Cabinet delayed a decision because they were not yet convinced the latest Omicron data justified announcing new restrictions. 

Can we afford another lockdown? Borrowing rises as economy stalls 

The grim state of the public finances was laid bare today as the Covid surge and Omicron variant hammers the economy.

Government borrowing came in above expectations at £17.4billion – only £4.9billion below last year and the second highest on record.

Meanwhile, the country’s debt pile had reached £2.32trillion by the end of the month – equivalent to 96.1 per cent of GDP, the worst ratio since 1963.

The bleak picture comes amid mounting fears that the resurgence of the virus has derailed the recovery. 

However, the newspaper said the Government could opt to impose a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown in England after Christmas, potentially starting on December 28. 

It was reported on Saturday that Whitehall officials had drawn up regulations which would effectively re-impose ‘Step 2’ of the PM’s lockdown exit roadmap for two weeks.  

That would mean a ban on indoor socialising and a return of the rule of six for outdoor gatherings. Bars, pubs and restaurants would be banned from serving people indoors. 

The delay in Mr Johnson’s decision on extra curbs prompted a split within the Cabinet, with Sajid Javid warning ministers that no decision was a decision in itself. The Health Secretary asked experts to ‘kick the tyres’ of government modelling but they were unable to reassure him that the variant is less severe, reports the Times.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted that the public should be trusted to make their own decisions as to how best to protect themselves and the family, rather than imposing more restrictions. He also criticised SAGE modelling while saying that there was not enough evidence to suggests new Covid measures were necessary. 

The Prime Minister convened the meeting of his top team as he faced a growing Cabinet revolt over potential further Covid rules. 

The PM had been presented with three options to tackle the variant amid surging case numbers, with the lowest level of intervention consisting of advice to limit household mixing indoors, according to The Telegraph.

The second level would see mandatory restrictions on household mixing, the return of social distancing and an 8pm curfew for pubs and restaurants while the third and toughest level would see a return to something close to a full lockdown. 

Mr Johnson is now considering his next move, knowing that any decision to tighten Covid rules will spark a furious Tory backlash. 

Downing Street at lunchtime refused to be drawn on the proposals which are reportedly under consideration, with the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman telling reporters: ‘At this point we are still monitoring the data and keeping a very close eye on it… we would update if any decisions are taken.’

Boris Johnson has been presented with three options to slow the spread of the Omicron variant with the PM reportedly clearing his diary today for crunch meetings with scientists and advisers

Boris Johnson has been presented with three options to slow the spread of the Omicron variant with the PM reportedly clearing his diary today for crunch meetings with scientists and advisers

Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, today refused to rule out more curbs being introduced before Christmas

Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, today refused to rule out more curbs being introduced before Christmas

Experts slam SAGE’s ‘fictitious’ doomsday scenario

Modelling by SAGE was today slammed as ‘fictitious’ after projecting 6,000 daily Covid deaths and 10,000 hospitalisations this winter in a worst-case scenario. 

In advice to ministers published this weekend, the Government’s scientific advisers said there could be astronomical casualty numbers without more ‘stringent measures’. 

SAGE’s modelling team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found there could be 10,400 hospitalisations in England per day at the peak of the outbreak in February in a worst-case scenario.

They assumed that Omicron will continue to grow exponentially even under Plan B curbs, two jabs offer just 50 per cent protection against severe disease from the mutant strain and boosters just 80 per cent. 

The 6,000 deaths a day figure was calculated by Warwick University scientists and made similarly pessimistic assumptions about vaccine effectiveness, as well as that current curbs reduce transmission by just 20 per cent . 

If both of these predictions were to come true, it would mean that 60 per cent of people who get admitted for Covid in the coming months will die.

By comparison, at the peak last January there were on average 4,000 admissions a day and 1,300 deaths giving a hospital-fatality rate of 32.5 per cent. Warwick said it factored in ‘extreme pressure’ put on the NHS by Omicron. 

The worst-case scenarios were presented despite 48.8 per cent of over-12s being boosted, 81 per cent being double-jabbed, and reports from South Africa that the mutant strain is milder.  

Crucially, the modellers did not look at any scenario in which Omicron causes milder disease than Delta or if people start to change their behaviour in the coming weeks in response to the variant.  

SAGE’s chief modeller Professor Graham Medley from LSHTM revealed this weekend that the committee does not consider optimistic scenarios because ‘that doesn’t get decisions made’. 

An ex-Government scientist who wished to remain anonymous today told MailOnline that the numbers are ‘fictitious’, adding: ‘Models have to simplify the world to predict the future, but clearly that’s an absurd futureThey said the doomsday scenarios were comparable to ‘science fiction’, adding: ‘But we don’t tend to question it because we worship numbers’.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University and a GP, said this morning that ‘we are in deep, deep trouble of potentially talking ourselves into annual lockdowns’ as he argued the question should be ‘when are we going to treat people like adults?’. 

But Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of government advisory body the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), said ‘we need to reduce our contacts’.

Asked about Christmas, he said: ‘The safest thing is not to meet up before Christmas. If you want a good Christmas dinner, I would say be very careful about meeting up before Christmas.’ 

At least 10 Cabinet ministers are said to be resisting further curbs because they have concerns about the accuracy of expert modelling on the spread of Omicron. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is one of the ministers to have expressed concerns about the projected numbers, according to The Times, after SAGE warned there could be 3,000 patients a day in need of hospital treatment without urgent action. 

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet on a call on Saturday that curbs should be rolled out as soon as possible but one third of senior ministers are said to be against the move.  

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab this morning refused to rule out additional restrictions before Christmas Day as he said he could not make ‘hard, fast guarantees’. He said the Government is aiming to take ‘informed decisions and of course we want to take them earlier rather than later’. 

Tory MPs last night said any attempt to toughen rules before Christmas will provoke letters seeking to oust Mr Johnson as party leader.  

The warnings came just 24 hours after Lord Frost, up to now a close ally of Mr Johnson, dramatically quit as Brexit Minister slating ‘coercive’ Covid curbs and high taxes.  

Lord Frost walked out with a parting shot at the ‘direction of travel’ and saying he had hoped the end of lockdown would be ‘irreversible’. His departure was described as a ‘watershed moment’ in what had been an extremely damaging week for Mr Johnson.

Today’s coronavirus statistics showed there had been a further 91,743 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK as of 9am this morning. The Government said a further 44 people had died. 

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said there had been 8,044 additional confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, bringing the total confirmed cases of the variant in the UK to 45,145.   

Families are desperate to spend Christmas together after last year’s Covid lockdown rules meant millions were forced to be apart or severely scale back their celebrations.

It is understood Mr Johnson is resisting calls for restrictions ahead of December 25, but there are mounting fears they will be imposed after that, spoiling New Year plans for millions. 

Sajid Javid yesterday repeatedly declined to rule out imposing tough restrictions before Christmas as he warned there are ‘no guarantees’ Christmas Day will go ahead without a lockdown. 

The Health Secretary acknowledged that data about the Omicron variant remained incomplete – but suggested it might be necessary to make decisions before a full picture is available.  

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet during a call on Saturday that hospital admissions in England could reach 3,000 a day unless further curbs are introduced

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Cabinet during a call on Saturday that hospital admissions in England could reach 3,000 a day unless further curbs are introduced

In other coronavirus developments:  

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to 'hold firm' against more restrictions and not make any 'knee-jerk restrictions'

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said there was 'no evidence' for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas

Mark Harper (left), chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, urged ministers to ‘hold firm’ against more restrictions and not make any ‘knee-jerk restrictions’. Meanwhile former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith (right) said there was ‘no evidence’ for restrictions to be brought in ahead of Christmas

 


Britain’s daily Covid cases fell for the first time in a month today and hospitalisations dropped in Omicron hotspot London as Government ministers claimed NHS pressure will be ‘short-lived’. 

Department of Health figures show there were 179,756 positive tests recorded across the UK over the last 24 hours, down 5 per cent on last week and a drop on yesterday.

The drop has been accelerated by the fact two days’ worth of cases were reported in Wales last Thursday, making today’s fall appear steeper. But it adds to growing evidence the country’s Omicron wave is no longer spiralling.

Latest hospital data showed another 2,078 Covid patients were admitted to UK wards on January 2, which was up 38 per cent on a week ago. Another 231 deaths were also recorded, down 30 per cent on last week.

But in London — which is several weeks ahead of the rest of the country in its Omicron outbreak — admissions fell 19 per cent in a week to 367, marking the fourth day in a row that they’ve dropped week-on-week. 

Fewer than 400 people are now being admitted in the capital on average each day, compared to around 900 at the peak of the second wave last January.

Signs that the crisis has peaked in just three weeks in London will raise hope that the situation in the rest of the country follows a similar trajectory.

Even NHS leaders now say there are signs admissions in the capital may be peaking, however, experts note that cases are still rising in the over-60s who are most vulnerable to severe disease. 

Now that there is a growing acceptance that Omicron is unlikely to lead to a wave of severe illness like previous peaks, health leaders say isolation and staff absences are the central crises they face. 

Boris Johnson today downplayed pressure on hospitals saying they had enough staff to see them through the winter, despite two dozen trusts declaring ‘critical incidents’ and waiting lists hitting new records. 

While the Prime Minister accepted the health service was ‘under huge pressure’, he said it was ‘not true’ that it could be overwhelmed because so many staff are off isolating with Covid.

He said staff numbers had been increased — about 6,000 more doctors and 10,000 nurses were hired during the pandemic — which should ease the strain, combined with the NHS’ volunteer army of trainee and retired medics. 

Earlier, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, claimed the current NHS crisis would be ‘short-lived’ and Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said the situation was ‘not unusual’ for winter. 

Mr Johnson has held his nerve despite calls for tougher restrictions to tackle Omicron, unlike his counterparts in Scotland and Wales, winning him praise from Tory MPs. 

But more than 180,000 Brits are being sent into isolation every day on average and the crisis has forced one in 10 NHS staff off work, putting significant strain on local health services. 

Boris Johnson (pictured at a Covid vaccine centre in Northampton today) claimed the NHS has enough staff to see through the Omicron wave in a bid to downplay hospital pressure despite two dozen trusts declaring 'critical incidents' and waiting lists hitting new highs

Boris Johnson (pictured at a Covid vaccine centre in Northampton today) claimed the NHS has enough staff to see through the Omicron wave in a bid to downplay hospital pressure despite two dozen trusts declaring ‘critical incidents’ and waiting lists hitting new highs

A total of 24 out of 137 NHS Trusts in England have declared critical incidents — or 17.5 per cent — due to soaring staff absences amid the Omicron outbreak. Above are the trusts that have publicly announced they have declared these incidents to help them manage winter pressures

A total of 24 out of 137 NHS Trusts in England have declared critical incidents — or 17.5 per cent. Above are the trusts that have publicly announced they have declared these incidents to help them manage winter pressures

December 26
January 2

The above maps show the percentage change in infection rates across London’s 32 boroughs over the week to December 26 (left) and the week to January 2 (right). They indicate that the outbreak is slowing in the city 

December 26
January 2

Pictured above is the % change in infection rates in England over the week to December 26 (left), and January 2 (right)

Nationally, Covid cases rose eight per cent last week the app estimated. They said there was a slowdown in rising infections across London and in 18 to 35-year-olds

Nationally, Covid cases rose eight per cent last week the app estimated. They said there was a slowdown in rising infections across London and in 18 to 35-year-olds

King's College London scientists today suggested that cases in the capital also appeared to be peaking. They said they had dropped by a third within a week, raising hopes that the worst of the outbreak may be over. The figures rely on weekly reports from three quarters of a million people nationally to estimate the prevalence of the virus

King’s College London scientists today suggested that cases in the capital also appeared to be peaking. They said they had dropped by a third within a week, raising hopes that the worst of the outbreak may be over. The figures rely on weekly reports from three quarters of a million people nationally to estimate the prevalence of the virus

UK Health Security Agency figures published today showed London's Covid cases had fallen six per cent in a week (green line). It is the only region to see cases fall, and now has the fifth biggest outbreak in England

UK Health Security Agency figures published today showed London’s Covid cases had fallen six per cent in a week (green line). It is the only region to see cases fall, and now has the fifth biggest outbreak in England

Twenty-four NHS trusts so far have declared ‘critical incidents’ due to staffing absences and rising Covid admissions, indicating that they may not be able to deliver critical care in the coming weeks.  

It comes as UK Health Security Agency figures showed infections were still rising in 129 of 149 local authorities in England — or 87 per cent — last week. But in London a majority of boroughs were seeing cases fall. 

And in another glimmer of hope the ZOE Covid Symptom study showed 208,471 people were catching Covid every day up to January 3, which was an eight per cent rise on 192,290 previously. They said the slow down was driven by a drop in infections in London and among 18 to 35-year-olds.

The UK today detected its first case of human bird flu. Officials said ‘patient zero’ caught the H5N1 virus after ‘very close and regular’ contact with a large number of infected birds which they kept in and around their home.

The UKHSA downplayed concerns saying human-to-human transmission of avian influenza is rare and the risk of a major outbreak is even lower. 

Health chiefs detect UK’s first human case of deadly bird flu in South West England

The first human case of a deadly strain of bird flu in the UK has been detected in a person living in the South West of England as the country faces its largest ever outbreak in animals, health officials have said.

Britain’s ‘patient zero’ caught the H5N1 virus after ‘very close and regular’ contact with a large number of infected birds which they kept in and around their home, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

It is the first ever human case of H5N1 — which kills up to half of the people it infects — recorded in the UK and fewer than 1,000 people have ever been diagnosed with the strain globally since it emerged in the late 1990s.

No more details about the individual have been released, but officials said they were in good health and currently in self-isolation. All of the patient’s infected birds have been culled.

Their close personal contacts, including people who visited the premises, have also been traced and there is ‘no evidence’ of the infection having spread to anyone else, the UKHSA said.

The current H5N1 outbreak is the largest bird flu crisis ever recorded in Britain – with officials saying more than half a million poultry have had to be culled as part of efforts to control the virus.

The outbreak has been going on for weeks and sparked fears of a turkey shortage in the run-up to Christmas.

Bird to human transmission of bird flu – also known as avian flu – is rare and has only occurred a small number of times in the UK. However, the public is being urged not to touch sick or dead birds.

Subsequent human-to-human transmission of avian influenza is also rare and the risk of a major outbreak in people is deemed to be even lower.

But the development comes with fears about infectious pathogens at an all-time high in the UK after two years of the Covid pandemic, reignited by the latest surge in Omicron infections.

The case was first detected after the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, identified an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in the person’s flock of birds.

As a precaution, UKHSA swabbed the person involved and detected low levels of flu. Further lab analysis showed the virus was the ‘H5’ type found in birds but have UKHSA said it has not been possible to confirm that this is the same H5N1 infection currently circulating in birds Britain.

The birds the person had contact with have now been culled, health authorities confirmed.

UKHSA chief scientific officer Professor Isabel Oliver, said: ‘While the risk of avian flu to the general public is very low, we know that some strains do have the potential to spread to humans and that’s why we have robust systems in place to detect these early and take action.

‘Currently there is no evidence that this strain detected in the UK can spread from person to person, but we know that viruses evolve all the time and we continue to monitor the situation closely.’

In other stories today: 

  • Evidence mounted that London’s Covid outbreak is ‘slowing down’ after a symptom study said cases had dropped by a third in a week;
  • And the UK Health Security Agency’s weekly surveillance report showed infections were ticking down in the capital;
  • It came as experts said the ultra-infectious Omicron variant should be ‘welcomed’ because it has driven out deadlier rival strains; 
  • And data showed at least 5,000 Covid ‘patients’ in England are not primarily in hospital with Covid;
  • Boris Johnson was put under further pressure to cut self-isolation to five days, amid warnings from hospitals of crippling staff shortages;
  • More than 160 cases of ‘flurona’ were detected in England before Omicron wave hit, figures showed, but experts said the true toll could be at least 1,000 and that events were ‘overhyped’.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson today said it was ‘not true’ that the NHS has too few doctors and nurses to deal with the pandemic.

Speaking at a vaccination centre in Moulton Park, Northampton, today, he said: ‘First of all, yes, I appreciate that the NHS is under huge pressure and yes, you’re quite right in what you say about the way it’s been continuous over the last 18 months – we’ve had wave after wave of Covid and our NHS has responded magnificently and they’ve kept going.

‘And of course I understand how frustrating it is to see another wave coming in, and I thank doctors, nurses, all health staff, everybody, for what they’re doing to keep going.’

But he said staff numbers had been increased, and that combined with the calling back of retired staff and volunteers would ease the strain.

He insisted Omicron was milder than previous variants but said: ‘The pressures on hospitals are clear. What we’ve got to do is give the NHS all the help we can through the next period, with all the simplifications of systems, moving staff from one hospital to another, all the ways we can back staff up, but also make sure that the people who are likely to get ill get vaccinated first.

‘The saddest words in the English language are ‘too late’. When you’re in ICU and you haven’t been vaccinated, sadly it’s too late to get vaccinated, so get boosted now.’

Mr Eustice predicted the country would get past the Omicron peak of infections ‘relatively soon’, with NHS struggles set to be ‘quite short lived’.

Speaking to Sky News, the Cabinet minister said: ‘This is a difficult situation.

‘It will be quite short lived because obviously we will get past this peak of infections relatively soon, but in the meantime we’ve taken that step to reduce the isolation period and we’re doing all we can to make sure we can redeploy resources (in the NHS).’

Asked when hospitals are likely to return to ‘normal’, he added: ‘We’ve seen growing numbers of infections over the last couple of weeks but people will start to return.

‘So even as some start to go off work, there will be others returning. As I say, it won’t be too long where you’ll have more people returning to work than those who are isolating.

‘But in the meantime, there is obviously a short-term issue and that’s why we need to try and redeploy resources the best we can around the country to help those who are suffering a particularly acute shortage of staff.’

Mr Shapps also poured cold water over the rising number of NHS trusts declaring incidents, saying: ‘It’s not entirely unusual for hospitals to go critical over the winter.’ He accepted, however, that there are ‘very real pressures’.

Twenty-four out of 137 trusts in England — or 17 per cent — have declared critical incidents so far in response to staffing shortages and mounting Covid admissions. 

Officials have yet to release the full list of affected trusts, however those which have raised the alarm include NHS sites in Bristol, Plymouth and Blackpool. Health bosses have already been forced to cancel non-urgent operations and have asked heart attack victims to make their own way to hospital.

Trusts declaring critical incidents — the highest level of alert — can ask staff on leave or on rest days to return to wards, and enables them to receive help from nearby hospitals.  

MPs warned today that the patient waiting list — already on the brink of 6million in England alone — could double in three years without urgent action to get more doctors and nurses on wards.

They say efforts to clear the backlog are being thrown off course by the self-isolation fuelled staffing crisis. Even NHS bosses have called for No10 to look at slashing the quarantine period to five days, like the US.

NHS sources told MailOnline that critical incidents were ‘not a good way’ of monitoring pressures on hospitals, saying it was better to analyse patient admissions and staff absences. They warned more trusts may have declared critical incidents but ministers are unaware because they do not need to be reported centrally. 

Government figures showed a total of 17,988 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid as of January 4, up 50 per cent week-on-week. The figure is the highest number since February 19 last year, although far below the peak of almost 40,000 in January 2021

The number of daily positive Covid tests recorded in England has exceeded 100,000 for nearly two weeks. However, the number of patients in hospital with the virus is a fraction of the level seen last winter, while deaths remain flat

The number of daily positive Covid tests recorded in England has exceeded 100,000 for nearly two weeks. However, the number of patients in hospital with the virus is a fraction of the level seen last winter, while deaths remain flat

Tory MPs criticised the BBC over its Covid coverage last night after it gave airtime to a Left-wing critic of the PM. It came as the Today programme aired a string of warnings from other NHS figures over the 'really challenging' circumstances facing hospitals

Tory MPs criticised the BBC over its Covid coverage last night after it gave airtime to a Left-wing critic of the PM. It came as the Today programme aired a string of warnings from other NHS figures over the ‘really challenging’ circumstances facing hospitals

The proportion of beds occupied by patients who are primarily in hospital 'for' Covid, versus those who were admitted for something else and tested positive later, referred to as 'with' Covid. The data looks at (55 per cent). That suggests 45 per cent were not seriously ill with Covid, yet were counted in the official statistics. In the South East of England 66 per cent were primarily non-Covid, in the East of England it was 51 per cent and in London it was 48 per cent. Critics argue, however, that the figures are unreliable because they don't include discharges, which could skew the data. But they add to the growing trend

The proportion of beds occupied by patients who are primarily in hospital ‘for’ Covid, versus those who were admitted for something else and tested positive later, referred to as ‘with’ Covid. The data covers the week between December 21 and December 28, when were around 2,100 additional beds occupied by the virus in England — of which 1,150 were primary illness (55 per cent). That suggests 45 per cent were not seriously ill with Covid, yet were counted in the official statistics. In the South East of England 66 per cent were primarily non-Covid, in the East of England it was 51 per cent and in London it was 48 per cent. Critics argue, however, that the figures are unreliable because they don’t include discharges, which could skew the data. But they add to the growing trend 

Latest figures show that hospitals in England have actually had fewer beds occupied this winter than they did pre-Covid. An average of 89,097 general and acute beds were open each day in the week to December 26, of which 77,901 were occupied. But the NHS was looking after more hospital patients in the week to December 26 in 2019, 2018 and 2017

Latest figures show that hospitals in England have actually had fewer beds occupied this winter than they did pre-Covid. An average of 89,097 general and acute beds were open each day in the week to December 26, of which 77,901 were occupied. But the NHS was looking after more hospital patients in the week to December 26 in 2019, 2018 and 2017

While Covid hospitalisations are rising quickly in England, they are still half of the level of last January and far fewer patients are needing ventilation

While Covid hospitalisations are rising quickly in England, they are still half of the level of last January and far fewer patients are needing ventilation

At least 5,000 Covid ‘patients’ in England are NOT primarily in hospital for virus, data suggests 

As many as 5,000 Covid patients in hospital in England may have been admitted for other ailments, NHS figures suggest as the super-mild Omicron variant continues to engulf the country.

Latest data shows so-called ‘incidental’ cases — those who test positive after admission for something else, such as a broken leg — made up a third of coronavirus inpatient numbers on December 28.

At that point, there were just 8,300 Covid sufferers being treated in England’s hospitals, 2,750 of which were not primarily receiving care for the virus (33 per cent). 

More up-to-date statistics from the Government’s Covid dashboard show that, as of Wednesday, there were 15,600 beds occupied by people infected with the virus. 

It is not clear exactly how many of the current patients are there primarily for Covid because the NHS’s breakdown is backdated and only covers up to December 28. 

But, if incidental cases still account for a third of cases, it means at least 5,000 who are being counted as coronavirus patients are not suffering seriously with the disease.

Experts say there is reason to believe the share of incidentals will continue to rise as Omicron pushes England’s infection rates to record numbers, with one in 15 people estimated to have had Covid on New Year’s Eve.

In South Africa — ground zero of the Omicron outbreak — up to 60 per cent of Covid patients were not admitted primarily for the virus at the height of the crisis there. 

Separate analysis of NHS data shows 45 per cent of beds newly occupied by Covid patients in the final week of December were patients not primarily ill with the virus. 

It comes as two dozen NHS trusts declared ‘critical incidents’ amid staggering staffing shortages caused by sky-high infection rates, indicating that they may be unable to provide vital care in the coming weeks. 

One in ten workers are off and 183,000 Brits are being sent into isolation every day on average, prompting calls for the isolation period to be cut to five days. 

It comes amid a growing body of evidence that London’s Covid cases are slowing down just a month after the Omicron variant took hold, sparking fresh hopes the capital’s outbreak may have already peaked.

King’s College London scientists estimated cases fell by a third after 33,013 people in the city were estimated to be catching the virus every day on January 3, compared to 49,331 the week before.

Their findings — based on three quarters of a million weekly reports and 68,000 swabs in the country — add to a growing body of evidence that the worst may be over in London.

Any peak in infections in the capital — which was first to be struck by the fourth wave — suggests that the rest of the country may soon follow suit and also see its Covid crisis ease.

Dr Claire Steves, who works on the study also run by data science company ZOE, said there was a ‘slow down’ in cases in London but that it was ‘too early’ to confirm they had peaked. She warned the return of schools could trigger further outbreaks.

In another promising sign, UK Health Security Agency data revealed that London’s cases fell six per cent last week. They said the capital was no longer the country’s epicentre for the first time since Omicron took hold, and had the fifth largest outbreak in England. The epicentre is now the North West, followed by the North East and Yorkshire.

Office for National Statistics figures published yesterday also showed ‘early signs’ that the city’s outbreak was peaking, statisticians said, although they cautioned one in ten Londoners were infected on New Year’s Eve.

Official figures also suggest cases in London are flatlining with 21,854 infections recorded today, down from 24,865 a week ago. It is several thousand below the peak 27,799 set on December 22.

But some scientists say it is hard to tell what is happening in the capital because of the holiday period, when up to four million people — or half the city’s population — leave to go ‘home’ for Christmas.

Most figures are also yet to cover the period after New Year’s Eve, when celebrations were allowed to go ahead unimpeded by restrictions — meaning the virus could have spread further.

Covid testing data from the capital shows that the number of PCRs carried out has fallen to about 500,000 a day, but the positivity rate — the proportion that detect the virus — is still heading upwards. 

Dr Steves said: ‘It’s good news that the number of daily new cases has slowed for now. ZOE Covid Study data shows that this slow down is being driven by cases falling in London and in younger age groups.

‘However, it’s worrying to see cases increasing in the over 75 age group. This is the group we need to protect as they are the most likely to be hospitalised as a result of a Covid infection.’

She added: ‘It’s too early to know if cases have truly peaked in London, as schools are yet to reopen after the holidays. We’ve seen school terms driving infection waves throughout the pandemic.

‘The health and care systems are already under huge pressure, so we all need to take personal responsibility for limiting the spread of Covid. This could be in the form of regular testing, wearing masks, staying away from busy crowded places, meeting up outside and getting booster vaccines.’

The UKHSA weekly report — which is based on national surveillance data — showed London’s Covid cases fell from 1,833.9 to 1,723.8 per 100,000 in the week to January 2.

This was also eight per cent below London’s peak over the week to December 19, when the rate was 1,880.9.

It now has the fifth largest outbreak in the country, behind the North West (2,228.9), the North East (1,929.2), Yorkshire and the Humber (1,777.7) and the East Midlands (1,754.4).

Nationally, they said cases were now starting to drop in 18 to 35-year-olds after they spiralled to record levels. But they were also seeing infections tick up in older age groups who are more at risk from the virus

Nationally, they said cases were now starting to drop in 18 to 35-year-olds after they spiralled to record levels. But they were also seeing infections tick up in older age groups who are more at risk from the virus

The study — also run by health data science company ZOE — said nationally Britons suffering from a cold were more likely to have Covid (blue line) than another respiratory disease (orange line)

The study — also run by health data science company ZOE — said nationally Britons suffering from a cold were more likely to have Covid (blue line) than another respiratory disease (orange line)

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show Covid cases in Omicron hotspot London are now only going up in people aged 60 and above. Graph shows: The case rate per 100,000 in people aged 60 and above (yellow line) and under-60 (red line). Cases have started to drop in under-60s, though the rate still remains above the more vulnerable older age groups

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show Covid cases in Omicron hotspot London are now only going up in people aged 60 and above. Graph shows: The case rate per 100,000 in people aged 60 and above (yellow line) and under-60 (red line). Cases have started to drop in under-60s, though the rate still remains above the more vulnerable older age groups

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show confirmed infections have fallen week-on-week on seven of the eight days leading up to December 30 - the latest date regional data is available for - in people aged 59 or below. Graph shows: The week-on-week rate of growth in average cases in under-60s (red line) and people aged 60 and above (yellow line). Cases are falling in under-60s and the rate of growth is slowing in over-60s

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show confirmed infections have fallen week-on-week on seven of the eight days leading up to December 30 – the latest date regional data is available for – in people aged 59 or below. Graph shows: The week-on-week rate of growth in average cases in under-60s (red line) and people aged 60 and above (yellow line). Cases are falling in under-60s and the rate of growth is slowing in over-60s

24 NHS trusts declare critical incidents but Grant Shapps insists it’s ‘not unusual’ for hospitals to suffer winter crises 

Twenty-four NHS trusts have now declared ‘critical incidents’ amid staffing shortages and rising Covid admissions — but ministers have downplayed the warnings saying it is not unusual for hospitals to face winter crises.

Grant Shapps said that 24 out of England’s 137 trusts — or 17.5 per cent of the entire health service — had signalled they may not be able to deliver critical care in the coming weeks.

But the Transport Secretary poured cold water over the alerts, telling Sky News: ‘It’s not entirely unusual for hospitals to go critical over the winter with things like the flu pandemic.’

The full list of trusts has not been made public, however those which have raised the alarm include North East Ambulance Service, Dorset County Hospital and Great Western Hospitals.

Trusts declaring critical incidents can ask staff on leave or on rest days to return to wards, and raising the alarm enables them to receive help from nearby hospitals.

It comes as MPs warned the patient waiting list has hit 6million in England alone, and could double in three years without further action due to pressure on the health service.

But Boris Johnson said yesterday that life could be back to normal by February, after cases rose by just six per cent in a week yesterday. The UK recorded 194,747 daily cases, compared to 183,037 last Wednesday.

The Prime Minister has held his nerve in the face of the spiralling Omicron wave — unlike his counterparts in Scotland and Wales — and imposed no new curbs over the holidays, winning him praise from Tory MPs.

Experts today said Omicron ‘should be welcomed’ because it could consign the days of Britain recording thousands of Covid deaths each day to history.

Despite cases skyrocketing to pandemic highs of over 200,000 because of the super-mutant strain — which has driven out deadlier rival variants — fatalities have stayed flat at around 110 since early December.

MailOnline analysis shows the UK’s case fatality rate — the proportion of confirmed infections that end in death — was dropping even before the variant took off. And intensive care admissions have yet to spiral, despite soaring hospital admissions.

Just 0.15 per cent of cases led to a death towards the end of December, compared to highs of over three per cent during the darkest days of last year’s second wave when the Alpha variant was in full motion and the NHS had yet to embark on its vaccination drive.

Government advisers warned soaring case numbers this winter would lead to an inevitable surge in hospital admissions and deaths of up to 6,000 per day, even with immunity provided by boosters.

But a host of studies have since claimed the variant, which was only detected in Britain in November but made up 90 per cent of all cases before Christmas, is intrinsically less severe than its predecessors because it replicates in the upper airways rather than the lungs — where it would do more damage.

Professor David Livermore, a medical microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline the strain’s emergence could be the best thing to have happened for the pandemic, echoing comments made by health experts in Denmark earlier this week.

He said: ‘With the spread of Omicron over the past three weeks, recorded cases have gone from around 50,000 per day to around 200,000. This has not fed through into an increased death rate — and a rise would have been expected by now, if it was going to happen.

‘The divergence between case and death rates agrees perfectly with Omicron being highly transmissible but less lethal than earlier variants — exactly as asserted by doctors in South Africa who discovered it.

‘It tallies also with studies from Hong Kong and Cambridge showing that Omicron is less able to infect lung cells and more likely to stay in the upper airways, were it does less serious harm.

‘In all these respects, Omicron is far preferable to the more dangerous variants that proceeded it and its take over should be welcomed.’

MailOnline’s analysis suggests the Covid fatality rate fell to as low as 0.14 per cent on December 28 — its lowest ever total — after dropping every day since November 18.

The rate is calculated by comparing average death numbers to average case numbers from two weeks earlier, which is roughly the amount of time it takes for the disease to take hold, experts say.

It means the case-fatality rate — which is different to the infection-fatality rate, which will be even lower because not everyone who has the virus gets tested — was already dropping before the strain kicked off in Britain in mid December, suggesting vaccines have played a huge role in thwarting the virus.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline the Covid fatality rate has been falling in recent weeks in the UK but some of this ‘is probably down to delayed reporting of deaths over Christmas’.

He said the ‘fatality rate for Omicron does seem to be lower than we have seen with previous variants and is probably now below 0.2 per cent’.

But the figure is also skewed slightly by increased levels of testing, with the number of swabs being carried out every having shot by around 245 per cent over the past year. Testing in Britain reached its highest ever level in the week leading up to Christmas this year, before peaking on January 4 at more than 2million.

And data shows cases were predominantly occurring in people aged under-50, who have always been less at risk of dying from the virus. Rates are now only going up in over-60s in London, signalling what may be to come fore the res of the country.

Experts say the trend is set to reverse next week, with infections slowing in the vulnerable age group and expected to fall.

Official data shows the number of people dying has barely changed across the UK over the last month, with fatalities dropping in the week up to December 31. Graph shows: Covid deaths by death date in the UK. More up to date death data by date reported is biased by reporting issues over the bank holiday weekends

Official data shows the number of people dying has barely changed across the UK over the last month, with fatalities dropping in the week up to December 31. Graph shows: Covid deaths by death date in the UK. More up to date death data by date reported is biased by reporting issues over the bank holiday weekends

MailOnline analysis shows just 0.15 per cent of cases led to a death towards the end of December, compared to highs of over three per cent during the darkest days of last year's second wave when the Alpha variant was in full motion and the NHS had yet to embark on its vaccination drive. The rate is calculated by comparing average death numbers to average case numbers from two weeks earlier, which is roughly the amount of time it takes for the disease to take hold, experts say

MailOnline analysis shows just 0.15 per cent of cases led to a death towards the end of December, compared to highs of over three per cent during the darkest days of last year’s second wave when the Alpha variant was in full motion and the NHS had yet to embark on its vaccination drive. The rate is calculated by comparing average death numbers to average case numbers from two weeks earlier, which is roughly the amount of time it takes for the disease to take hold, experts say

Record 1.3million Britons claimed they had long Covid BEFORE Omicron surge, official data shows 

A total of 1.3million Britons were living with long Covid before the Omicron surge, according to major report by the Office of National Statistics.

This is equivalent to approximately 2 per cent of the UK’s population — or one in 50 people, with symptoms ranging from tiredness to headaches and nausea.

The ONS calculates 506,000, 40 per cent, have suffered the wide-ranging condition for over a year.

The estimates are based on a survey of 350,000 people who self-reported suffering with long Covid, meaning they were not necessarily diagnosed.

These responses were collected in the four weeks to December 6, before the recent surge in Covid infections driven by the Omicron variant.

There are fears the new wave could exacerbate the problem, now record numbers of people are catching the disease.

Experts have previously cast doubt over the ONS’s long Covid sufferer findings, with some saying they are likely to be an overestimation given symptoms like headaches and fatigue can be linked to a variety of conditions.

The 1.3million estimate is an increase of 100,000 from the ONS’s previous toll which was released at the end of October.

Experts highlighted that long Covid numbers have not, however, risen at the same rate as Covid cases meaning vaccines may be offering some protection against the condition.

Long Covid is defined as having lingering symptoms of the virus for more than a month after infection.

It is a poorly understood condition with sufferers normally reporting extreme tiredness, breathing difficulties, a loss of smell, and problems concentrating. But it has been linked to an array of other symptoms like joint pain, nausea, insomnia and depression.

The condition was estimated to affect the day-to-day lives of 809,000 people, nearly two thirds of self-reporting long Covid sufferers.

More than 160 cases of ‘flurona’ have already been detected in England, MailOnline revealed today — but experts say true toll could be in the region of 1,000 and insist it the fears are ‘overhyped’.

Data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows of the 8.6million people in England who tested positive for Covid by the end of November, 169 also had influenza — 0.002 per cent.

Health chiefs said the real figure of those who have had both viruses at once will be higher, and around three in 10 people who require an intensive oxygen treatment in hospital have a secondary infection on top of Covid.

Dual infections of influenza and coronavirus have been reported this week in Europe and the US, including in children and a pregnant woman.

But doctors monitoring the cases have so far reported mild symptoms, and one top expert said concerns over ‘flurona’ are ‘overhyped’.

Flu has yet to make a resurgence in the UK after cases fell to their lowest level in 130 years during the pandemic, as restrictions brought in to reduce the spread of Covid also prevented flu cases from reaching usual levels.

Experts warned this lack of immunity could lead to 60,000 flu deaths this winter, up from the usual annual death toll of 10,000 to 25,000.

But data from the Office for National Statistics — which groups death data for flu and pneumonia — shows this category of fatalities were a fifth lower in November than the five year average in England.

However, experts told MailOnline the risk of dual infections will inevitably increase if flu takes off this winter, like seen elsewhere.

The UKHSA report shows 93 Covid patients were diagnosed with influenza A, while 37 had influenza B and four had an unconfirmed type of the virus. 

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist based at Reading University, told MailOnline there seems to be a ‘fairly low’ amount of flu circulating in the UK at the moment, so the risk of coinfection is ‘not currently high’.

But he warned: ‘Contracting both viruses simultaneously increases the risk of being seriously ill, but risks can be mitigated by getting vaccinated and boosted against both diseases.

‘Allowing increased numbers of either infection increases the risk of contracting both of them.

‘With testing for both viruses uncoupled as they are, the numbers of confirmed flu infections is probably a substantial underestimate and it is possible that the risk of dual infection is much greater than we realise.

‘I would be surprised if the current number of flu and Covid co-infections was below a thousand.’

And Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline coinfections from any respiratory viruses ‘are generally more severe’.

People who caught Covid and flu at the start of the pandemic were ‘roughly twice as likely’ to be hospitalised or admitted to intensive care compared to those who just had Covid, he said.

Data justifying move to cut self-isolation period to five days was evident last SUMMER, experts argue amid growing calls for Boris to follow the US to save nation from being paralysed

By Luke Andrews Health reporter for MailOnline and Emily Craig Health reporter for MailOnline

Ministers have sat on evidence justifying slashing self-isolation to just five days since last summer, according to critics who have demanded Boris Johnson drops the crippling rules that are paralysing the nation. 

Rail services and bin collections have ground to a halt with up to 1.3million Britons currently under house arrest, while the workforce crisis has left NHS bosses asking heart attack patients to make their own way to hospital. 

But the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal thinktank, said data published in August last year suggested it was safe to halve the quarantine period, which at the time stood at 10 days.

Oxford University research found 98 per cent of transmission occurs within the first five days of symptoms, and prompted experts on the topic to say the isolation period ‘could be much shorter’. 

Virologists said today that they agreed with the findings, with the vast majority of spread happening in the days before and after someone starts feeling ill.

And James Lawson, a fellow at the ASI, told MailOnline: ‘The research shows we can safely reduce the isolation period.  

‘Governments say they want to follow the science, yet are ignoring the changes in circumstances and much of the data we’ve had since last summer.’ 

He added: ‘The isolation period is having harmful unintended consequences, including putting more pressure on the NHS through staff shortages. It is also making it harder to keep schools open, maintain deliveries and so on, which undermine wider society.’

Mr Lawson also said it was time for No10 to ‘start trusting Britons’ to take sensible precautions and ‘forge a path back to normality, rather than adopting restrictions forever’.

Meanwhile, an NHS leader yesterday called for the period to be cut to five days if the science allows, saying any way to get staff back to work would be a ‘good thing’. 

Covid testing rules could be relaxed in an effort to combat the havoc wreaked on essential services across the country by thousands of key workers being stuck in self-isolation. Pictured: A deserted Waterloo Station at 08.15 on Monday

Covid testing rules could be relaxed in an effort to combat the havoc wreaked on essential services across the country by thousands of key workers being stuck in self-isolation. Pictured: A deserted Waterloo Station at 08.15 on Monday

As the number succumbing to the virus reached a record high, there were fears that staff absence due to Covid could become just as big a problem, with bin collections delayed, trains cancelled and several hospitals in Greater Manchester saying they would suspend non-urgent surgeries. Pictured: Overflowing bins in the Walton area of Liverpool on Tuesday

As the number succumbing to the virus reached a record high, there were fears that staff absence due to Covid could become just as big a problem, with bin collections delayed, trains cancelled and several hospitals in Greater Manchester saying they would suspend non-urgent surgeries. Pictured: Overflowing bins in the Walton area of Liverpool on Tuesday

Last month ministers trimmed the self-isolation period to seven days, providing someone tested negative using a lateral flow on days six and seven. But the Prime Minister is under huge pressure to follow the US, which squeezed quarantine to just five days for anyone without symptoms.

Business leaders yesterday warned that they too were struggling, with the managing director of supermarket Iceland saying their absence graph was ‘almost vertical’ and more than double the previous peak. 

Richard Walker, managing director of the chain, told Sky News: ‘I think it is fair to say that business is under strain as never before. This new variant seems to be a lot more contagious and that is having a big impact.

‘My call on government would be firstly to prioritise lateral flow tests for key workers including food retail front line shop workers, but also to revisit the onerous isolation rules.

Now No10 scraps pre-departure Covid swabs and says Day 2 tests do NOT have to be PCR

Boris Johnson yesterday axed the Covid travel testing scheme brought in to fight Omicron and asymptomatic people who test positive on lateral flow no longer need a follow-up PCR, in a bid to ration testing.

The Prime Minister told MPs in the Commons that fully vaccinated passengers entering the UK will no longer be required to take pre-departure tests from 4am on Friday.

Day 2 follow-up PCRs for UK arrivals are also being scrapped and replaced by lateral flows — saving people up to £60 per test — and people no longer need to isolate until they get a negative result.

If they test positive, however, they will have to take a PCR swab and self-isolate for up to 10 days if they are indeed positive.

Mr Johnson said the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease. 

The moves — which were welcomed by the struggling travel industry —  come after it was revealed confirmatory PCRs for asymptomatic cases who test positive on lateral flow will also be scrapped next week. 

The changes have been announced amid sky-high case numbers — with another 197,000 announced yesterday — and unprecedented demand for testing.

‘Seven days is a long time for people who are triple jabbed when the symptoms are for the vast majority of people not more than a common cold or mild flu.’

MPs and experts have also joined the growing chorus demanding a change in the rules, with other nations such as France and Greece having already cut it down to five days. 

Tory MP Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline earlier this week that the government faced a ‘tough’ choice, but the country was in the midst of a ‘semi-lockdown’ with a million Britons currently isolating after catching Covid.

He said cutting the quarantine period from seven to five days 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.’

Epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector, who runs Covid-tracking study ZOE, said the UK should follow suit to ‘protect the economy’.

And Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation — an organisation which represents trusts — said two more days should be shaved off the period as long as it was backed up by the science. 

He told BBC Radio 4: ‘As long as it is based on the science. Because on the one hand we do need to try to get staff back to work as soon as possible.

‘Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate — any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing.

‘But on the other hand, if staff come back into hospital and are infectious, that’s completely counterproductive because that is going to mean more sickness in the hospital and for staff, so this can’t be led by politics or blind hope — it has to be led by the science.

‘If the science says it is possible for people to go back to work earlier, then of course NHS leaders will want that to be possible.’

He suggested that people in quarantine could test themselves on days three, four and five, and come out of isolation on day five if they test negative.  

University of St Andrews’ researchers first raised the alarm bells about the length of quarantine in November 2020, discovering that the vast majority of Covid transmission happens during the first few days that someone is ill.

The paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet Microbe, was a review of 79 studies investigating how long someone is infectious for.

The team’s assertion that most people do no spread the virus after five days was based on research out of China and Taiwan — but only included several hundred patients.  

And in August last year Oxford University scientists said just two per cent of transmission happens from five days after warning signs appear.

The institute’s Pathogen Dynamics Group — which was involved in developing the NHS Test and Trace app — also found 40 per cent of transmission occurs before symptoms emerge, and 35 per cent within the first and second days of falling ill. 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated a record 3.27million people in England were infected on any given day in the week to December 31, up more than 60 per cent on the previous week

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated a record 3.27million people in England were infected on any given day in the week to December 31, up more than 60 per cent on the previous week

Even NHS bosses back cutting self-isolation period to FIVE days as staffing crisis sees hospitals CANCEL routine operations 

An NHS leader yesterday revealed he would support slashing Covid self-isolation to five days amid an escalating staffing crisis that has engulfed hospitals and led some to cancel routine operations. 

Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation — an organisation which represents trusts, said two more days should be shaved off the period as long as it was backed up by the science.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the situation was ‘desperate’ and any way of getting staff back to work was a ‘good thing’. But he said it would be ‘completely counterproductive’ to have infectious staff return to wards because it would exacerbate the spread of Omicron.

Last month ministers cut the self-isolation period to seven days, providing someone tested negative using a lateral flow on days six and seven. But pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to follow the US, which has squeezed quarantine to only five days for anyone without symptoms.

Around 1.3million Britons are currently thought to be languishing under house arrest as the NHS, rail services and bin collections all buckle under the weight of staff absences.

One in ten NHS employees are estimated to be off sick or self-isolating, and Mr Johnson yesterday revealed plans are being drawn up to call in the Army if the crisis continues to worsen.

Some 10 out of 137 hospital trusts in England have declared ‘critical incidents’ in recent days — or eight per cent, signalling that they may struggle to deliver vital care to patients in the coming weeks because so many medics are off isolating. Seventeen hospitals in Greater Manchester have also started shelving operations. 

For comparison, only about two per cent of transmission was recorded over the five to ten days after symptoms emerged.

Oxford University sources said the paper was shared with the Government before its results were released. It is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. It is unclear how many Covid cases the teams findings were based on. 

Neither team has yet to comment on whether isolation should be shortened in response to current pressures.

But UK Health Security Agency scientists say any further reduction would be ‘counterproductive’, arguing it risks sending infectious people back to work and spreading the virus further. 

The body, which replaced the now-defunct Public Health England, recommended the change because modelling showed it did not increase the risk of spreading the virus.

Professor Julian Tang, a virologist from Leicester University, told MailOnline: ‘I think the studies’ findings are right. Most transmission occurs just before and just after symptom onset.

‘Up to five to seven days post symptom onset the immune response kicks in, and starts to decrease the viral load.’

He suggested NHS workers could be allowed to return to their jobs from seven days after developing symptoms, regardless of whether they had tested positive. 

‘If they are a healthcare worker and they are going to be wearing masks at work all day, [the risk of transmission] may not matter much,’ Professor Tang added.

‘If they are a teacher going back to school to teach in a class of mostly vaccinated and masked children, it may not matter much.’

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline research suggests ‘the large majority of Covid infections are transmitted between two days before to three days after symptom onset’. 

‘That doesn’t mean infection after that is impossible just very unlikely,’ he said. 

‘Some risk remains for longer than five days but it is so small that continuing isolation beyond five days, whether or not LFD positive, is probably not justified except when in Contact with particularly vulnerable people,’ Professor Hunter added. 

Dr Alex Crozier, a researcher at University College London, told MailOnline the UK should not rely on lateral flow tests for its isolation policy, as they can ‘often take much longer than 10 days to materialise and we risk over-isolating people and exacerbating staffing issues this way’.

‘A lot of vaccinated people will continue to test positive beyond day five to seven via LFT, even once their symptoms have resolved and the risk of onwards transmission is really quite low,’  he said.

The vast majority of the population is double-jabbed and ‘many of us even have four or five doses of immunity now’, Dr Crozier said.  

‘We therefore have to interpret the results of antigen tests differently and carefully in three-dosed individuals,’ he said.

Dr Crozier added: ‘People testing negative a few days into symptoms doesn’t necessarily always mean they aren’t infectious, and testing positive post day five doesn’t necessarily mean they are significantly infectious.

‘There is a trade-off to be had and it is all about balancing different risks.

‘After testing positive, if symptoms have resolved for more than 24 to 48 hours and people have received the booster vaccine, we might be able to release them earlier than day 10, regardless of LFT status. 

‘If they still have some symptoms on day five then that is a different story. For critical roles, we can now probably move to a more flexible isolation policy, based on clinical expertise and context, not relying on just LFT status and blanket rules.’ 

Julian Jessop, economics fellow at the think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, told MailOnline that the case for easing the rules for mandatory isolation periods is ‘further is strengthening by the day’.  

He said: ‘Scientists are now more confident that the Omicron variant is milder, and that the risks of transmission drop off sharply within a few days. This reduces the benefits of lengthy isolation periods.

‘On the other side of the equation, the surge in the number testing positive for Covid is adding to the costs of isolation, since many more people are having to stay at home.’

Mr Jessop added: ‘It is hard to see how widespread staff shortages of 10 per cent or more will not have a crushing impact on output. Even just a 2 per cent reduction in activity would cost the economy about £4 billion every month.

‘It might be worth taking a large but temporary hit to GDP to protect health, and this could be better for the economy too in the long run. However, long isolation periods seem to be doing more harm than good – including to the NHS itself.

‘It is increasingly clear that the biggest threat to the NHS is a shortage of staff, due to the isolation rules, rather than a surge in the number of people who are seriously ill with Covid.

‘The UK government should therefore not hesitate to follow the trend elsewhere in Europe, the US and South Africa, and continue to ease the isolation rules. Reducing the minimum period from 7 to 5 days would be an obvious next step.’

Calling for self-isolation periods to be reduced, Matthew Taylor, the head of the NHS Confederation which represents trusts, said two more days could be shaved off.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday: ‘On the one hand we do need to try to get staff back to work as soon as possible.

‘Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate — any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing.

‘But on the other hand, if staff come back into hospital and are infectious, that’s completely counterproductive because that is going to mean more sickness in the hospital and for staff, so this can’t be led by politics or blind hope — it has to be led by the science.’


Tests for travellers before they arrive in England are to be scrapped, Boris Johnson has announced, with travel industry bosses already reporting a ‘massive surge’ in bookings. 

In what marks a huge boost for holidaymakers, the Prime Minister said in a Commons statement the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease.

He told MPs the requirement for travellers to self-isolate on arrival until they receive a negative PCR test is also being dropped. 

Instead, the rules will revert to the system in place in October, with travellers required to take a lateral flow test no later than the end of day two after their arrival.

The measures were originally introduced following the identification of the fast-spreading Omicron variant in South Africa last November.

Families are already booking half-term breaks since the end of PCRs means around a £300 saving for a family of four, 

Travel firms welcomed the news, with the boss of airline Jet2, Steve Heapy, revealing there had already been a ‘massive surge’ in web traffic and bookings following Mr Johnson’s announcement.

Overseas tests and day 2 PCR tests added hundreds of pounds to the cost of foreign breaks for families, discouraging many from embarking on trips abroad. 

Covid tests for travellers arriving in England are to be scrapped, Boris Johnson has announced, in a major boost for the beleaguered travel industry

Covid tests for travellers arriving in England are to be scrapped, Boris Johnson has announced, in a major boost for the beleaguered travel industry

In what marks a huge boost for holidaymakers, the Prime Minister said in a Commons statement the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease

In what marks a huge boost for holidaymakers, the Prime Minister said in a Commons statement the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease

Mr Johnson told the House: ‘When the Omicron variant was first identified, we rightly introduced travel restrictions to slow its arrival in our country.

Testing regime that has been scrapped as the Omicron threat dwindles:

Travelling home from another country has been a nightmare for may due to new restrictions amid Omicron.

The rules for the fully vaccinated, which will change from 4am on Friday, are…

Before travel: 

  • Take a test in the 2 days before travel to England
  • Book a PCR test to be taken after you arrive in England
  • Complete a passenger locator form

On arrival:

  • Take a PCR test
  • Take the test any time after arrival and before the end of day 2
  • Quarantine in your home or the place you are staying

‘But now Omicron is so prevalent, these measures are having limited impact on the growth in cases, while continuing to pose significant costs on our travel industry.

‘So I can announce that in England from 4am on Friday, we will be scrapping the pre-departure test, which discourages many from travelling for fear of being trapped overseas and incurring significant extra expense.’

The announcement – which covers those passengers who are fully vaccinated or are under the age of 18 – was broadly welcomed by the travel industry, which has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said it would be a ‘massive boost’ for the sector at a ‘critical’ time of the year.

‘People will now be able to book knowing that – for the fully vaccinated – all emergency testing restrictions have been removed,’ he said.

‘Today marks an important step towards learning to live alongside the virus, helping passengers and the travel sector look ahead to what will be an all-important spring and summer season.’

EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren also welcomed the move but said the Government needed to go further.

‘This will make travel much simpler and easier and means our customers can book and travel with confidence,’ he said.

‘However, the Government must now urgently take the final step towards restriction-free travel and remove the last remaining unnecessary test for vaccinated travellers so flying does not become the preserve of the rich.’

Steve Heapy, CEO of Jet2.com and Jet2holidays said: ‘It is abundantly clear to everyone that travel testing requirements have had no impact on the spread of the Omicron variant, so this should represent the end of a set of measures that are not only disproportionate but futile too. 

‘That said, the removal of these travel restrictions is the news that our customers have been desperate to hear, and the massive surge in traffic and bookings tells us that holidays are very much back on for UK holidaymakers. 

‘Customers are jumping at the chance to book the holidays they have been looking forward to and we want to give them even more to smile about, which is why we are launching this sale.’

He added: ‘Whether it is a family holiday, a break with the other half or a group get together, we know how much everyone needs that well-deserved holiday. 

‘Holidays just got a lot easier and whether it is sun, ski or a leisure city holiday, we can see just what a shot in the arm today is for customer confidence.’ 

Travel firms welcomed the news of reduced testing, with the boss of airline Jet2, Steve Heapy (pictured), revealing there had already been a 'massive surge' in web traffic and bookings following Mr Johnson's announcement

Travel firms welcomed the news of reduced testing, with the boss of airline Jet2, Steve Heapy (pictured), revealing there had already been a ‘massive surge’ in web traffic and bookings following Mr Johnson’s announcement

Epidemiologist John Edmunds, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the move to scrap overseas tests before arriving in England and day 2 PCR tests in favour of a single day 2 LFT test made sense.

‘When the prevalence is high, and it is incredibly high at the moment, almost everyone who tests positive with a lateral flow test will be a true positive,’ Edmunds said. 

‘There is really no need to confirm this with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere.’

A spokesman for Heathrow Airport said: ‘Although this is welcome news, there is still a long way back for aviation which remains the lifeblood of the UK’s economy, supporting millions of jobs in all four nations.’

The UK was the only country in Europe demanding that even fully-vaccinated holidaymakers take two tests when returning home.

Under the current rules, one rapid swab must be taken pre-return within 72 hours of travel to the UK and a post-arrival PCR test by day two.

Travellers must self-isolate until the results of this latter test are received, and can be stuck in quarantine for days if results are delayed.  

Under the current rules, one rapid swab must be taken pre-return within 72 hours of travel to the UK and a post-arrival PCR test by day two. Travellers must self-isolate until the results of this latter test are received, and can be stuck in quarantine for days if results are delayed.

Under the current rules, one rapid swab must be taken pre-return within 72 hours of travel to the UK and a post-arrival PCR test by day two. Travellers must self-isolate until the results of this latter test are received, and can be stuck in quarantine for days if results are delayed.

The quarantine rules were beefed-up at the end of November in a bid to stem the importation of Omicron.

They added hundreds of pounds in testing bills to the cost of foreign breaks for families.

They also increased fears about being stranded abroad if pre-return test results are positive.  As a result travel firms reported mass cancellations.

Prior to the November changes, travellers were required to take just one rapid test post-arrival by day two. 

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents major carriers such as British Airways, Jet2 and easyJet, said yesterday it would also boost domestic tourism businesses because laxer rules will attract more foreign visitors.

He said: ‘This isn’t just about outbound holidays.

‘We’re losing billions in revenue from people who ordinarily would want to travel to the UK to spend money, including in our shops and restaurants.

‘This is a competition at the end of the day – we need to attract people to the UK, not put up a big ‘closed for business’ sign.

‘We can’t have international travel – and the hundreds of thousands of jobs and livelihoods that depend on it – being treated differently to hospitality and other domestic sectors.

The scrapping of overseas tests and day 2 PCR tests has already proved to be a boost for the travel industry with many families making bookings to go abroad (pictured: Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, on May 1, 2021)

The scrapping of overseas tests and day 2 PCR tests has already proved to be a boost for the travel industry with many families making bookings to go abroad (pictured: Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, on May 1, 2021)

‘If Omicron doesn’t warrant further restrictions at home, then the case for continuing with the emergency testing requirements for aviation is undermined, especially now it is the dominant variant in the UK.’

Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), told BBC Breakfast that lateral flows were very accurate when it came to recording a positive result. 

‘Of course, with a PCR test what happens is a number of those can get sent away for sequencing and then you get more information regarding the virus itself. 

‘So, that sort of information may potentially be lost, but only a subset of those PCR tests are sent away for sequencing anyway, so, hopefully, we won’t be losing the levels of information that we already have in this country that enables us to identify variants and so forth.’ 

He said it was ‘very, very important’ that if any changes were brought in regarding dropping some PCRs that people still recorded their results from lateral flows. 

Regarding the change to travel testing requirements, he said when there were very high numbers of cases in the UK, testing upon entry to the UK ‘becomes less important’ as cases are already circulating. ‘

So, again, that’s probably why the change is coming in to support the travel industry and reduce a lot of the testing requirements.’ 

Mr Hawkins added that the restrictions had a significant effect on the number of travellers using its services.

‘We have seen passenger numbers fall back by about a third between October and November,’ he said. 

‘Passengers responded to the lifting of travel restrictions very positively and we saw a good level of recovery coming through but the new measures at the end of November and December knocked that back by about a third. 

‘We were at about 60 per cent of travel levels compared to 2019 and we fell back to just above 40 per cent. 

‘We are seeing higher absences along with most other businesses and transport providers and it’s putting them under a certain amount of pressure. 

‘But January is generally a quieter month for us anyway, and the testing requirements have knocked back by our recovery by a third.

‘So we do have some headroom to absorb those kinds of pressures at the moment, but we’re keeping a very close eye on absence levels and trends over the coming weeks.’


We’ve fought Covid… now we need a national effort to beat cancer: PROF KAROL SIKORA warns ‘time is running out’ to stop thousands unnecessarily dying from disease and pandemic has ‘devastated’ UK’s progress











Professor Karol Sikora, pictured, former director of the World Health Organization’s cancer programme

While all eyes were fixed on Boris Johnson and the bloodbath over Partygate, in a quiet corner of Westminster a small group of parliamentarians were quietly showing politicians at their best – dealing with matters of life or death.

Anyone who tuned into the debate today amongst a smattering of MPs on the issue of access to radiotherapy would have found it a truly sobering experience.

MPs from all parties lined up to set out in chilling terms the desperate situation we are now facing with cancer. In their words, it is a crisis in every shape and form.

Before Covid, the UK had a very poor record on cancer outcomes. Now the pandemic has devastated all recent efforts to improve cancer recovery and survival. Appointments cancelled, diagnostics delayed and treatment derailed. With cancer, delay costs lives.

The well-documented statistics are horrendous and anyone who thinks they will never be affected should remembers that cancer will affect 1 in every 2 of us at some stage in our lives.

Throughout the pandemic I have always tried to be as positive as possible but as someone who has spent 50 years treating cancer patients, I see the current situation in the gravest of terms.

Of all the medical backlogs grievously aggravated by the pandemic, cancer is the most time sensitive and time is running out fast.

NHS England aims to treat 85 per cent of cancer patients who receive an urgent referral from their GP within two months, but in October 2021, the latest available, only 68 per cent of patients received treatment in this time frame. The graph above shows the October performance of meeting this target in the health service in England in the month of October from 2010 to 2021

NHS England aims to treat 85 per cent of cancer patients who receive an urgent referral from their GP within two months, but in October 2021, the latest available, only 68 per cent of patients received treatment in this time frame. The graph above shows the October performance of meeting this target in the health service in England in the month of October from 2010 to 2021

Rapid cancer treatment is a key factor in determining outcomes for patients, charities have called the growing proportion of people facing delays for their treatment as worrying

Rapid cancer treatment is a key factor in determining outcomes for patients, charities have called the growing proportion of people facing delays for their treatment as worrying

In the radiotherapy debate, repeated reference was made to the Catch Up with Cancer campaign created by Craig and Mandy Russell just weeks after their daughter Kelly Smith, 31, who had bowel cancer, died during lockdown. The petition started by Kelly’s parents attracted several hundred thousand signatures and showed all too clearly what really matters to people.

A key contributor to delay in diagnosis for those with suspected cancer in this country is that the label of (potential) cancer is applied too early and too arbitrarily. Patients are either placed on a high-risk pathway (the two-week week fast track pathway) or the slower six-week diagnostic pathway. The stratification is done with too little information in many cases as well as the fact that these deadlines are often not met.

We could achieve so much more by determining cancer likelihood with better information. The very first stop for everyone should be a rapid set of diagnostic tests and until diagnostics are completed, treatment cannot start.

So how can capacity improve? Of course, there should be greater resource in terms of equipment and people The government’s commitment to 40 community diagnostic hubs situated in places from a football stadium to a repurposed retail outlet is a major step in the right direction. Aside from the challenge we face in terms of diagnostics, the tremendous advances made in precision radiotherapy – including amazingly precise treatments such as proton beam therapy – have delivered real benefits to patients.

The Health Secretary Sajid Javid has echoed the recent advice from NHS England for hospital Trusts to make agreements urgently with independent healthcare providers to help tackle the backlog. The cancer centres where I work have offered the NHS their services at a not-for-profit rate, offering much needed additional capacity. If there is one prevalent complaint from the public, it is that they cannot access diagnosis quickly enough and even when they can, treatment is too slow.

In today’s debate MPs from former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron to Labour’s Grahame Morris and government minister, Maria Caulfield (who, as a cancer nurse, knows the challenges all too well) were in a storm of agreement that radiotherapy provision is a key priority as part of the clinical arsenal of weapons that are needed to tackle cancer.

If the cancer challenge was formidable before the pandemic, it is now monumental. The political will is clearly there to tackle this problem but all of us involved in cancer care need to display the same determination to take action now in the same way we rose to the challenge of the vaccination booster campaign. We need another national effort. People’s lives depend on it.

Karol Sikora is a consultant oncologist and professor of medicine at the University of Buckingham Medical School.

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