England sees no need for further restrictions – for now

LONDON (AP) — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson sees no need for further restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus’ omicron variant his spokesman said on ahead of a press conference on Tuesday.

Amid indications that omicron may produce “milder” illness than earlier variants and the success of a nationwide vaccine booster program, the government believes the existing level of controls is still appropriate, Johnson spokesman Max Blain told reporters in London. The government continues to monitor the data and is prepared to respond if the situation changes, he said.

“At the moment, we don’t see any data to suggest that further restrictions would be the right approach, given we know it is important to strike the right balance between protecting lives and livelihoods,” Blain said.

Opposition politicians and some public health officials have pressed the government to step up restrictions on business and personal interactions as the highly transmissible omicron variant pushed infection levels to records during the Christmas holidays. Johnson has resisted these calls after almost 100 of his party’s lawmakers opposed controls imposed last month.

Confirmed new daily infections across the U.K. jumped to a new record of 218,274, 15% higher than the preview peak of Dec.1. The figures reflect some inconsistency in reporting during the holiday period.

But the government is focused on figures showing the omicron variant to cause fewer cases of serious illness than previous variants.

There were 14,210 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across England on Jan. 3, the highest number since Feb. 20 of last year. But there were 777 people on ventilators, a figure that has remained steady for the past six weeks.

“We know that admissions and occupancy are increasing significantly at the moment – we’re not seeing that same jump in beds requiring ventilation, which is pleasing, and almost certainly a function of both the nature of omicron and our successful booster program,’’ he said.

But soaring infection rates are putting pressure on the National Health Service, schools and businesses across the country as workers are forced to stay home after testing positive for COVID-19 or having close contact with someone who has. On Tuesday, Blackpool NHS Trust was the latest to declare a critical incident due to demand and staff shortages.

“Because of the pressures the trust is under, we have made the decision to declare an internal critical incident which means staff across the trust will be working together today to take actions immediately to attempt to alleviate the pressure we are under,” said Natalie Hudson, the CEO of the trust.

Government agencies are considering whether the military should be called in to help the NHS.

The government has already pledged to rush air ventilation units and COVID-19 test kits to schools to ensure they can reopen on time. Secondary school students in England will be required to wear face masks as they return to classes.

Johnson last month re-imposed mask requirements in shops and required those going to night clubs and other large public events to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. He also accelerated the national booster program after studies showed two doses of vaccine weren’t enough to protect against omicron.

Across Britain, almost 60% of people 12 and over have received a booster vaccine.

“We believe this is the right course,” Blain said.

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