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UK can 'ride out' omicron wave without lockdown, says premier

Shortly before press conference with Prime Minister Johnson, UK reports 218,724 new daily COVID-19 cases in new record.

Karim El-Bar   | 04.01.2022
UK can 'ride out' omicron wave without lockdown, says premier People wear face masks following the increase in coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in London, United Kingdom on January 04, 2022. The UK recorded its highest daily number of Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic with 157,758 new cases in last 24 hours. ( Rasid Necati Aslim - Anadolu Agency )

LONDON

The UK on Tuesday ruled out any new coronavirus-related restrictions, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying that the country has "a chance to ride out this omicron wave" without another lockdown.

Speaking at a COVID-19 press briefing, Johnson began the conference on a more sober note, saying: "Anyone who thinks our battle with COVID over I am afraid is profoundly wrong. This is a moment for utmost caution."

Shortly before the press conference, the UK reported 218,724 new cases of the disease on Tuesday, a new record.

Due to issues with testing capacity in recent days and weeks, even this figure could be an underestimate.

It brings the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 13.6 million, while deaths number 148,941 including 48 on Tuesday.

Johnson insisted, however, that the UK was now in a different position than it was in previous waves due to its national vaccination effort providing a "substantial level of protection."

"We can find a way to live with this virus," he said, before adding that the weeks ahead would be "challenging" and that some services would be disrupted.

To this end, he announced that 100,000 critical workers in various sectors spanning food production, transport, and the border force, would be asked to take lateral flow tests every day from Jan. 10. Retired teachers will also be asked to return to work.

Despite saying that the National Health Service (NHS) would transition to "war footing," Johnson said he would not be implementing any further restrictions at this stage in addition to those already in place.

These restrictions, known as Plan B, include mask mandates in some settings and vaccine passports for some venues.

Encouraging Brits to get their booster jabs, Johnson said "up to 90% of those in intensive care" have not been boosted and up to 60% are unvaccinated.

Tuesday's government data showed that up to and including Jan. 3, 90.1% of Brits aged 12 and over had received their first dose of a vaccine, while 82.6% had their second jab and 59.8% their booster shot.

Professor Chris Whitty, the UK government's chief medical adviser, spoke alongside Johnson.

Whitty said there had been a "very substantial increase" in the number of cases over the past few weeks, adding: "The expectation is that those numbers will go up."

London has been the epicenter of the UK's omicron wave thus far.

Whitty said of the capital: "Numbers are slowing, but they are still going up. Numbers in younger adults are levelling off and falling, but this is before New Year's numbers will show. Rates in older people are still going up, and these are the people that are more likely to be hospitalized."

He did add, however, that "we are not seeing the same surge in mortality" from omicron as with previous waves.

The press conference came as a wave of hospitals in England have declared "critical incidents" -- including in Lincolnshire, Swindon, Gloucestershire, and Blackpool.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said that "in many parts of the health service, we are currently in a state of crisis."

"Some hospitals are making urgent calls to exhausted staff to give up rest days and leave to enable them to sustain core services," he added.

The Royal College of Nursing also wrote a letter to British Health Secretary Sajid Javid calling for a "more cautious approach" to COVID restrictions in England.

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