Tougher Covid restrictions in the wake of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant have been described as ‘inevitable’ by a key NHS organisation.
The NHS Confederation, a membership body for healthcare providers and staff across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said it was a question of “when, rather than if” new rules would be introduced.
Hospitality chiefs have also called on the Government to provide greater clarity on coronavirus restrictions amid a wave of cancellations.
It all comes after the Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled out immediately implementing any new Covid-19 measures in the run up to Christmas, but warned he had to “reserve the possibility” of bringing in more stringent restrictions.
The latest Government statistics showed there were a further 91,743 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK on Monday (20 December), with a further 44 deaths recorded of people who had died within 28 days of a positive test.
What the NHS Confederation said
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said the record-breaking Omicron wave has put the NHS at risk of being overwhelmed.
The organisation said average hospital bed occupancy is already high at 93% with hospitals in England seeing more than 800 people admitted with coronavirus every day.
These issues have been compounded by rising levels of staff sickness, particularly in London, and high demand for mental health, community and primary care services.
Mr Taylor said his organisation’s members feel the Government has to act on Omicron ahead of January, which is typically the busiest month for frontline NHS services.
“Health leaders are not calling for further restrictions as they know these can be very damaging to people’s health and wellbeing but, given the rising cases of coronavirus and the rapid spread of omicron, they feel it is now a question of when rather than if they will be needed,” he said.
“If the Plan B measures and boosters prove not to be enough, they expect the Government to respond quickly and pre-emptively in the national interest to the range of advice and modelling it has.
“This includes recalling Parliament over the Christmas break if that is needed.
“This is not just about protecting the NHS and its workforce but about protecting public health and reducing illness.”
Responding to Mr Taylor's comments, a UK Government spokesperson said: “As has been the case throughout the pandemic, our priority is to save lives and protect the NHS, which is why we implemented Plan B and are encouraging people to get their booster jabs as soon as possible.
“We are keeping all data under review and we will not hesitate to take any necessary action where it is deemed necessary.”
On Monday (20 December), Boris Johnson said the Government would need to balance Omicron’s effect on healthcare with the economic impact of any new measures.
He added that there were still “uncertainties” about the severity of the Covid variant, as well as the rate of hospital admissions associated with it, and its impact on the effectiveness of the vaccines.
One sector which has said it is already suffering from the economic consequences of the Omicron variant’s spread is the hospitality sector, which has renewed calls for financial support from the Government.
A survey of 40 venues and ticketing agencies by Live, a federation representing music venues and entertainment, found 95% said Omicron had affected their business.
This was due to fewer people coming to shows, a major fall in ticket sales and a big rise in requests for refunds.
Live said half of all venues had cancelled shows for January and February.
Its CEO Greg Parmley called on the Government to provide “guidance and clarity” on Covid restrictions to allow businesses to make informed decisions.
“There are businesses in the live music industry that are faced with huge decisions in the next 48 hours about whether to mount expensive shows for just after Christmas and New Year’s Eve,” Mr Parmley said.
“[They are] caught in a catch-22 of losing money if they pull them now or risking even more by going ahead – only to find the Government closes all activity later.”
Live’s boss also described the Government’s current position as “an excuse to withhold desperately needed financial support as sectors like live music and entertainment buckle under the weight of the latest Covid wave”.
Patrick Dardis, chief executive of the Young’s pub chain, said: “The Chancellor must step in and immediately announce the end of business rates, VAT to zero for at least six months, plus a cash injection to protect jobs,” if the Government opted to introduce tougher Covid restrictions.
Additional reporting by PA