The NHS was put on a crisis footing tonight as hospitals across England were ordered to offload as many patients as possible as Omicron’s estimated daily cases hit 200,000 and the variant did his first life in the UK.
Boris Johnson is bracing for his biggest rebellion as prime minister on Tuesday, with around 80 confirmed Tory MPs preparing to vote against work from home measures, Covid passports and more mask wearing. He will have to count on the support of Labor for the votes to pass.
Amid a rush for testing and booster shots, doctors across the country have called for new restrictions to be imposed to stem the rise in cases and Downing Street has not ruled out further measures.
In a letter to hospitals, NHS England chiefs said patients who could be referred to nursing homes, hospices, their own homes or hotels before Christmas to free up beds should be. The letter from NHS England Director General Amanda Pritchard and Medical Director Professor Stephen Powis said the service was facing a ‘national incident’ Level 4.
Hotels are already being transformed into temporary care facilities staffed with workers from Spain and Greece to relieve growing pressure on NHS hospital beds.
Hospitals and GPs have also been urged to cut back on normal services and limit care to those in need of urgent attention so NHS staff can be released to deliver reminders. Hospitals will undertake fewer elective operations, but “patients with the highest clinical priority”, including people with cancer and those who have waited for a long time, will be given priority.
They were also asked to get ambulance patients to A&E faster so paramedics can get back on the road to answer more than 999 calls, speed up efforts to bring in nurses from overseas to help with address the NHS staff shortage and send as many patients as possible for surgery to private hospitals.
A campaign to give reminders to over a million people a day has been launched which has prompted the NHS website to crash and people to queue in the streets until five o’clock for their jabs .
But the British Medical Association said the vaccination campaign would not be enough to stop the spread of Omicron, with one in four still ineligible for a booster. They called for the return of face masks in pubs and restaurants, social distancing of 2 meters indoors, limits on public gatherings, legal requirements for ventilation in schools and other places, faster testing and advice for wearing FFP2 masks.
Number 10 insisted the recall campaign was its immediate priority, with a high-level government source describing the main strategy as “keep on poking”. But Boris Johnson refused to rule out tougher restrictions if necessary to maintain public health. Number 10 said all options were still on the table, leaving open the possibility of closing schools “as a last resort” and introducing restrictions without consulting MPs “in extremis”.
Speaking to MPs, Sajid Javid revealed that there could now be up to 200,000 Omicron infections per day. He said about 20% of confirmed cases in England had been identified as the Omicron variant, and warned of “difficult weeks ahead”. In London, the center of the Omicron outbreak, it accounted for more than 44% of cases and is expected to become the dominant form within 48 hours, the health secretary said.
He said Covid passports would be tightened up to require people to undergo a recall or recent Lateral Flow Test (LFT) in the New Year, risking angering Conservative MPs over the restrictions ahead of the votes of the Commons on “plan B” restrictions.
Labor backed the government’s recall campaign and did not call for further restrictions, with Keir Starmer saying it was Labor’s ‘patriotic duty’ to vote for Plan B.
The prime minister confirmed the first death of a patient with Omicron and 10 people hospitalized with the variant, saying people should “put aside” the idea that the variant was benign.
Meanwhile, principals warned of ‘chaos’ in schools, with high levels of staff and student absences, and reported that some parents were planning to keep children at home to avoid the virus before Christmas.
On the first day of the new vaccination campaign, 386,000 people in England are said to have booked booster shots – nearly 50,000 per hour. But there was confusion over whether all eligible over 18s could get a booster by the end of the year, with No 10 insisting they would, as the NHS put question the objective. Javid suggested the goal was to “gift” rather than deliver the boosters.
Johnson and Pritchard jointly appealed to the public to volunteer at vaccination centers, calling on tens of thousands to act as unpaid stewards and thousands to register as vaccinators paid. It is understood that No 10 will also launch a new effort to reach the unvaccinated, using an advertising campaign potentially involving religious leaders and celebrities.
On Monday, people trying to obtain LFTs were told they were not available despite a new requirement for Covid contacts to take them daily for a week.
The BMA’s call for tighter restrictions echoed warnings from scientists that vaccination alone would not be able to stop Omicron from causing a dangerous second wave. Documents leaked by the UK’s Health and Safety Agency showed on Friday that public health officials believed there should be “strict national measures” by December 18, sources saying the plan B will not suffice.
The BMA, which represents 150,000 doctors, is the first major medical organization to call for stricter measures. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the board of the BMA, said: “Despite the description of the current situation as an ’emergency’ with a ‘tidal wave’ of infections on the horizon, the government’s response, relying entirely on the vaccine recall program, misses the broader measures needed to control the spread of Omicron, including protecting millions of people who will not be eligible for the recall program by the end of December. ”