British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday recommended to his Cabinet that England does not need to impose further lockdown restrictions as he hopes to “ride out” the Omicron wave of COVID-19, which hit another daily record high with 218,724 infections.
In the first Cabinet meeting of the New Year, Johnson laid out his plans to continue with Plan B measures which include mandatory face coverings, work from home where possible guidance and COVID vaccination certificate checks for larger events.
Johnson also announced plans for 100,000 critical workers to take daily tests from January 10 in order to keep infections under closer check and address the issue of large-scale self-isolating staff absences.
"As our NHS moves to a war footing, I will be recommending to Cabinet that we continue with Plan B,” Johnson said during a Downing Street briefing on Tuesday evening.
"We have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again. We can keep our schools and our businesses open, and we can find a way to live with this virus," he said.
Meanwhile, the requirement for confirmatory PCR tests to follow positive home-based lateral flow antigen tests has been scrapped under new rules effective from January 11.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has decided to limit PCR tests to those with symptoms, allowing those who are asymptomatic – about 40 per cent of cases – to return to work more quickly. People experiencing the three official COVID symptoms – a high temperature, a new continuous cough and a loss or change to sense of smell or taste – will still be expected to get a PCR.
"While cases of COVID continue to rise, this tried and tested approach means that LFDs [lateral flow devices] can be used confidently to indicate COVID-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation,” said UKHSA chief Jenny Harries.
“It remains really important that anyone who experiences COVID-19 symptoms self-isolates immediately,” she said.
People who test positive on lateral flow home testing kits, with or without symptoms, will still need to isolate for at least seven days. Until the new rules from next week, everyone in England is still required to take a follow-up PCR test if they receive a positive lateral flow result and then count their isolation period from the date of the PCR result.
There are also reports that compulsory pre-arrival tests for international travellers coming to England may be scrapped, with the travel industry urging the government for change as they have no real impact given the extremely high rate of Omicron transmission within the community.
A UK government spokesperson said that they keep all measures "under review", adding that the temporary testing requirements were introduced to "prevent additional Omicron cases from entering the UK, stopping people from passing it on to others if they are infected".
Meanwhile, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) continues to face added pressures with up to 12 trusts having to suspend some less urgent treatments amid staff absences due to COVID-19.
“The NHS is under huge pressure. I won’t provide a definition of what being overwhelmed would constitute because I think that different trusts and different places, at different moments, will feel at least temporarily overwhelmed,” admitted Boris Johnson, when asked about the pressures.
Reiterating his message for people to come forward for the vaccines, the UK prime minister warned that it would be an "absolute folly" to say the pandemic is over even though it seemed that Omicron "is plainly milder" than other variants.
“Looking at the pressures on the NHS in the next couple of weeks and maybe longer, looking at the numbers of people who are going into hospital, it would be absolute folly to say that this thing is all over now bar the shouting,” he said.
"We have got to remain cautious, we have got to remain with Plan B, we have got to get boosted," he added.
According to latest UK data, fewer people are being admitted to intensive care units (ICU) with Omicron than previous variants and most of those in hospital with COVID-19 have not had a booster vaccine dose.