Britain is broken from a decade of Tory government

There is a very clear reason for the mess the country is in right now. It is called the Conservative Party. It has been in power for over a decade. A lost decade. A wasted decade, in which the big choices and challenges faced have been decided, not with the national interest in mind, but on the basis of the internal divisions and difficulties of the wretched Tory party.

Welcome to a new year of more of the same! – Owl

Alastair Campbell www.independent.co.uk

ABC. A for Austerity. B for Brexit. C for Covid. Draw a Venn diagram of the MPs who argued hardest for austerity, fought relentlessly for a hard Brexit, and are now demanding Covid policy is founded on the politics of Steve Baker and Esther McVey rather than the expertise of Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, and you see at its centre the same Tory MPs who were once marginal but now call the shots in the party of government.

McVey may have been ill-advised to say it out loud, but she was right when she said the Tory rebellion over plan B Covid restrictions had had an effect on the cabinet decision to avoid plan C. Yet again, policy on key national issues is being decided not on the merits of fact and argument, but on internal Tory politics.

Of course Boris Johnson has to go. He is both venal and incompetent, and his moral vacuity has been exposed. But he is a symptom of his party and its politics, a ghastly symbol of that wasted decade, and the Tories cannot be allowed to play their favourite con game, of pretending that a change of leader is somehow a change of government. Labour needs to be wise to this, because it is almost certainly the trick they will now try to pull off.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the Tory decade. First we had David Cameron and George Osborne, whose austerity was a series of brutal political choices dressed up as economic necessity, the consequences of which are playing out now in the shrunken state’s difficulty managing a pandemic.

Then Cameron’s referendum pledge, made not because the country needed or wanted it, but to shut up the anti-Europeans and shore up the right of his party. It worked, short-term, in that it helped him get Europe off the agenda, win an election, get rid of the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners, and govern on his own.

The trouble was, having won, he had to hold the referendum, and suddenly the party divisions exploded once more. Johnson decided his own interest clashed with the national interest, and opted inevitably for the former. His gamble paid off. He won, while Cameron lost and tootled off into a lucrative lobbying sunset, leaving Theresa May to try to make sense of what he had left behind.

This ushered in the “Brexit means Brexit”, “will of the people” chapter of this story of national decline. May appointed David Davis as Brexit secretary, where he failed to see that the complexities of getting a deal required more than the ability to busk your way cheerfully through a Today programme interview.

Having assured the world that it would be straightforward to reach the sunlit uplands, he quickly discovered that, though the promises were easy, the details were not. Unable to find a way of marrying the huge claims made for Brexit with the reality of what Brexit meaning Brexit actually meant, he took the easy way out, and walked, leaving unicorns behind him.

Next to the crease was Dominic Raab. The same unicorns were sought. The same finale. He walked, replaced by Stephen Barclay, who was so lost in the contradictions of Brexit that he ended up voting against a motion he had just argued for in the Commons.

Once May was ousted, with Johnson replacing her and then winning his own mandate on the promise to “get Brexit done” with an “oven-ready deal”, we had the unelected bureaucrat David Frost in charge. Only it turned out that the deal required a lot more cooking, and when it was done, though celebrated by Johnson, Frost and Co as “great”, it transpired that they had broken a whole new set of promises to get it, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the peace process in Northern Ireland – the Brexit circle that John Major and Tony Blair had warned from the off could not be squared. A year on from the celebrations, Frost walked too.

However, now elevated to the Lords, and feted by the libertarian right who had pushed for a hard Brexit when Johnson was still singing the praises of the single market, Frost saw himself as much more than a mere Brexit functionary. Not for him the shameful route of simple failure taken by his three predecessors. He had to have a bigger reason – step forward Covid restrictions, high taxes, the role of the state: the arguments on which those now jockeying to replace Johnson – notably Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – are focused. All cover for his actually having discovered that unicorn-chasing is fruitless.

So Johnson replaces one former Remainer opportunist, Frost, with another, Truss. Not because she is the most able person, but because she is popular in the party – so if she can do the job well, it helps the government, and if she does it badly, it sees her off as a leadership contender. And her first utterances have been an almost exact echo of the unicorn stance of her quartet of failed predecessors – because that is “what the party wants to hear”, and that is all they care about.

Meanwhile, Brexit is delivering a 4 per cent hit on the economy, double the impact of Covid; and as Frost bleats his opposition to recent tax rises, he appears to lack either the knowledge or the humility to be able to see that Brexit has made such rises inevitable. High inflation, rising taxes, low growth and productivity, real living standards stagnant, chaos for many businesses large and small, and in some cases entire sectors: these cannot be put down to Brexit alone. But it is the single biggest factor, and “nothing to do with Brexit” is just the latest in the long litany of lies told by the Brexit cabal.

Johnson is in a mess politically because of lies told about wallpaper and Christmas parties. But the effects of the far bigger lies told about Brexit – before, during and since the referendum – will sadly be with us long after he is gone, when the Christmas parties are forgotten. Cameron came to power in part by pushing the myth of “broken Britain”. Brexit is in danger of making that myth a reality, and those who brought it about have to pay a far bigger price than merely seeing Johnson forced out of No 10, with another opportunist Tory installed in his place. If Britain is breaking, it is because the Tory Party, and Brexit, have broken it.

Hospital Covid admissions from omicron could exceed second wave, study suggests

Even if omicron turns out to be just half as severe as delta, UK hospitalisations could exceed those seen at the peak of the second wave, according to new modelling.

By Paul Nuki, Global Health Security Editor www.telegraph.co.uk 

The study, which has been presented to Sage and produced by the University of Warwick, has suggested that the NHS will only escape a re-run of last year if omicron turns out to be five to 10 times milder than other variants.

“Under these assumptions of no additional control [beyond Plan B], and even assuming omicron is just 10 per cent the severity of delta it is still highly likely that hospital admissions will peak above 1,500 per day,” said the authors.

“If we assume that omicron is as severe as delta [black line] then admissions will be an order of magnitude larger, peaking at around 27,000 admissions.”

There is strong evidence to suggest omicron is less severe than delta, but estimates as to how much less severe vary greatly.

Data from Scotland released last week suggested omicron is associated with a two thirds reduction in risk of hospitalisation when compared with delta.

‘Strong controls enacted early bring the greatest reduction in infections, hospital admissions and deaths’

A separate study by Imperial College London looking at early English data suggested people with PCR-confirmed omicron infection were 15 to 20 per cent less likely to require hospitalisation.

The Warwick modelling is not intended to predict what will happen over the next few months. Instead it is designed to inform ministers about the range of possibilities that may unfold.

The authors say that assuming the omicron is 100 per cent as severe as delta (black line on chart) represents a “reasonable worst case”.

They also caution that if the time it takes omicron to become symptomatic is shorter than with delta – as it is now strongly suspected – it would radically alter their results for the better.

“If the generation time of omicron was half that of delta, once the model is recalibrated… this would approximately halve the predicted peak outbreak sizes”, they said.

The modelling also looks at the impact of reimposing restrictions beyond Plan B and finds – unsurprisingly perhaps – that it brings the projections for cases, hospitalisations and deaths down significantly, albeit at a cost to the economy and peoples freedoms.

“Strong controls enacted early bring the greatest reduction in infections, hospital admissions and deaths during the first wave of omicron”, it says.

Ministers will have seen or had the message from the Warwick modelling conveyed to them before Christmas when it was decided to stick to the plan B measures only.

And most experts now agreed that implementing measures now would have a much diminished impact, given the intergenerational mixing that happened over Christmas.

Yet ministers will be watching the live data carefully.

There were a total of 11,452 people in hospital in England with Covid-19 as of 8am on Thursday, according to figures from NHS England.

This is up 61 per cent from a week earlier and is the highest number since February 26.

During the second wave of coronavirus, the number peaked at 34,336 on January 18.

Tory underfunding has put the NHS on death row 

Letters www.theguardian.com 

Your report on the state of the NHS (One in four Britons ‘not confident NHS can care for them’, survey reveals, 26 December) was summed up by the quote from Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary: “With record waiting lists, 100,000 NHS staff shortages and 112,000 vacancies in social care in 2019, the Tories left our health service criminally ill-equipped for Covid.”

My husband, in the final stages of dementia and awaiting a place in care, is in a holding ward. Insufficient nurses try to cope, but mouth hygiene is neglected. And no shower or hair wash for more than a month. He deserves better. Hardly God’s waiting room, more like death row. Aneurin Bevan will be turning in his grave.

Hilda Reynolds

Bristol

You report that one in four of us is not sure that the NHS can care for them. I wonder if this stage in public sentiment was envisaged or even engineered as part of a transition to a system of private healthcare. For almost two years we have been bludgeoned with the command to protect the NHS. But protecting the NHS is not primarily our responsibility – it’s the government’s. There’s nothing inevitable about the NHS having to struggle along on inadequate resources while its staff compensate for the deficit with heroic amounts of goodwill.

Susan Tomes

Edinburgh

In the past four months, three friends of mine, all ardent believers in the NHS, have swallowed their principles and paid for private operations to avoid a wait of up to two years for surgery that would restore their quality of life. They have no doubts about the quality of care provided by the NHS, but its underresourcing means that long waits for non-urgent interventions have become painfully inevitable.

With a heavy heart, I fear that I would do the same in their position. This is what 11 years of underfunding has come to. And yes, I do believe that this is a Conservative strategy towards private healthcare, in which, because we can afford to do so, we find ourselves colluding.

Ruth Pickles

Congleton, Cheshire

Covid Cases set to break 200,000

At a critical point in the evolution of the current wave of Covid infection in England (following the data hour by hour), we have the disruption to consistent reporting caused by the holidays coupled with constraints on testing, including PCR.

Owl picks out two observations about trends from the Zoe Covid study:

“The number of daily new symptomatic COVID cases are more than double what they were this time last year and we are just a day or two away from hitting over 200,000.  However, the exponential growth in cases appears to have stopped, and the rise is more steady. Hospitalisation rates are thankfully much lower than this time last year, but they are still high, especially in London.”

“The rise in cases appears to be slowing in the 0-55 age groups. Cases are rising sharply in the 55-75 age groups, which is worrying given this group is more at risk of hospitalisation.” 

covid.joinzoe.com 

According to ZOE COVID Study incidence figures, in total there are currently 192,290 new daily symptomatic cases of COVID in the UK on average, based on PCR and LFT test data from up to three days ago [*]. An increase of 33% from 144,284 reported last week (Graph 1). 

In the vaccinated population (at least two doses) there are currently 78,748 new daily symptomatic cases in the UK. An increase of 40% from 56,346 new daily cases reported last week (Graph 2).

The UK R value is estimated to be around 1.2 and regional R values are; England, 1.2, Wales, 1.1, Scotland, 1.1 (Table 1). 

In terms of prevalence, on average 1 in 32 people in the UK currently have symptomatic COVID. In the regions, England, 1 in 30. Wales, 1 in 41. Scotland, 1 in 51. In London, 1 in 16 have symptomatic COVID (Table 1).

Cases are rising in all regions, particularly in the North West, which has a R value of 1.3. However, cases continue to be higher in London than any other region (Graph 4).

The rise in cases appears to be slowing in the 0-55 age groups. Cases are rising sharply in the 55-75 age groups, which is worrying given this group is more at risk of hospitalisation  (Graph 3).

According to the data, ZOE estimates that 75% of people experiencing new cold-like symptoms are likely to have symptomatic COVID-19. This number has increased since last week, as the data is now showing a fall in the number of non-COVID ‘colds’ and a continued rise in symptomatic COVID infections (Graph 5).

The ZOE COVID Study incidence figures (new symptomatic cases) are based on reports from around 840,000 weekly contributors and the proportion of newly symptomatic users who have received positive swab tests. The latest survey figures were based on data from 67,687 recent swab tests done in the two weeks up to 27th December 2021. 

Dr Claire Steves, scientist on the ZOE COVID Study app and Reader at King’s College London comments on the latest data:

“The number of daily new symptomatic COVID cases are more than double what they were this time last year and we are just a day or two away from hitting over 200,000.  However, the exponential growth in cases appears to have stopped, and the rise is more steady. Hospitalisation rates are thankfully much lower than this time last year, but they are still high, especially in London. The ZOE data is showing that cases are still on the rise in 55-75 year olds so unfortunately it’s likely that this will translate into more hospital admissions in the New Year. 

It’s good news to see that fewer people are newly sick than a few weeks ago. However, the fact that 75% of new cold-like symptoms are COVID, and the classic symptoms are much less common, means the Government advice needs to be urgently updated. We want to see symptoms like sore throat, headache, and runny nose added to the list as soon as possible. 

Looking ahead to 2022, the strategy should be about focusing on maximising our immunity, across the generations, across all sections of society and across the world. Let’s be clear, this is a global pandemic so we need to be looking at other countries and helping vaccination programs everywhere to increase global immunity levels and help reduce the risk of future variants.” 

Graph 1. The ZOE COVID Study UK incidence figures total number of daily new cases over time.

Graph 2. The ZOE COVID Study UK incidence figures results over time; total number of new cases and new cases in fully vaccinated

Graph 3. Incidence by age group 

Graph 4. Prevalence rate by region

Graph 5. Comparison of new onset of cold-like illness and new onset of COVID with respiratory symptoms

Table 1. Incidence (daily new symptomatic cases)[*], R values and prevalence regional breakdown table 

Map of UK prevalence figures

Of course England is running out of Covid tests – the strategy is a flawed one

It has become very clear that there are nowhere near enough lateral flow tests for Covid-19 in England to allow the government’s policy of their indiscriminate use.

Azeem Majeed, a professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London www.theguardian.com

Even if funding could be found to buy more tests, it is unlikely that the government could source enough tests to meet current and future demand because of the many other countries that are also trying to obtain the tests as they struggle to control the wave of infections from the Omicron variant.

The government is in part to blame for the current problems with the increased demand for tests. It has encouraged members of the public to test regularly. For example, before social events such as parties and also before meeting friends and family from outside their immediate household.

The very high level of Covid-19 cases in the UK (with around 183,00 cases reported on 29 December) also means that many more people will have been advised to test regularly in line with guidance from Test and Trace. This will include guidance for close contacts of cases who are asked to carry out daily tests for 10 days if they are fully vaccinated and want to avoid isolating. People with a Covid-19 infection can also test themselves on day six and day seven of their illness, and end their period of isolation if they are asymptomatic and the two tests are both negative.

What can we do to improve how well lateral flow tests are used?

The first step is for the government to publish data on the daily supply of tests. We then need clear guidance from the government on what groups should be prioritised for testing and how frequently they should test.

Carrying out several tests in one day is not a good use of these tests. Nor is carrying out daily lateral flow tests after a positive PCR test (other than on day six and seven, as discussed above). Even daily tests are inappropriate in asymptomatic people when there is now such a large gap between the supply and demand for tests.

NHS guidance is for staff to test twice a week with a lateral flow test, but many asymptomatic people are testing more frequently than this. NHS trusts and general practices need to review their testing polices and give clear guidance to staff to protect the supply of tests.

Once we have information on the daily supply of tests, we can then prioritise who will have access to these tests. This kind of prioritisation is quite normal in healthcare and was done, for example, with Covid-19 vaccination to ensure access was given based on clinical and occupational priority.

Groups for priority access to tests should include: NHS staff in patient-facing roles; teachers and other people working in schools; workers in essential parts of the economy such as public transport; and groups such as HGV drivers to ensure that deliveries of essential items continues. It should also include patients who are clinically vulnerable and those following guidance from Test and Trace.

We are also facing a shortage of PCR tests and an important question arises for the government: should we use lateral flow tests to give better access to testing for people with symptoms and reduce testing for people who are asymptomatic?

If this does happen, we will still need to decide which groups have access to lateral flow tests in place of PCR tests. But successful implementation of this policy could allow many more people to receive a test. Although lateral flow tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests, they will still identify many people with Covid-19.

We need to look again at the costs of supplying these tests and to determine what we can afford to spend. Although the tests are supplied at no cost to the public, they are not free and will come at a considerable cost to the taxpayer. Access to diagnostic services and other health services always has to be limited; and based on factors such as clinical need, health outcomes, and cost-effectiveness.

With the country facing record numbers of people with Covid-19, it is important to maximise the benefits of England’s testing capacity. We need the government to act quickly, decisively – and rationally.

Downing Street Christmas party inquiry hauls in aides

One government source said those asked for interview were “pissing themselves”.

Maybe they fear being thrown under one of Boris’ buses, while he walks free? – Owl

Steven Swinford www.thetimes.co.uk

Downing Street officials and special advisers have been asked to attend formal interviews as part of an inquiry into allegations that parties were held in No 10 during lockdown last year.

Sue Gray, the civil servant leading the inquiry, has emailed more than a dozen people about the events. One government source said those asked for interview were “pissing themselves”.

Gray was drafted in to take over from Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, after The Times revealed that a Christmas party was held in his office during lockdown. Case said he was aware of the gathering but had not participated.

The inquiry is likely to focus on a gathering in Downing Street on December 18 last year. Several of those present told The Times that there was cheese and wine, music and that the event went on until 2am. No 10 has denied that the event was a Christmas party.

However, the gathering was planned for three weeks, with invitations sent to officials and advisers on WhatsApp while the UK was in full lockdown.

The event was attended by Jack Doyle, the prime minister’s director of communications, who handed out awards, something insiders said he did every week.

He is said to have left the party for meetings with Boris Johnson, including urgent discussions on whether to effectively cancel Christmas for millions of people by banning households from mixing. Johnson made the announcement the following day.

Johnson has repeatedly said he has been “assured” by senior advisers that the event was not a party. However, he was forced to order an investigation amid public outrage over the event.

There are suggestions that up to seven lockdown-breaking gatherings took place in November and December last year. Gray’s investigation will examine the event on December 18, a reported leaving event for a No 10 aide on November 27 which was said to have been attended by Johnson, as well as a party at the Department for Education. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has said that Gray will be free to investigate other events.

Downing Street staff were also pictured drinking in the No 10 garden during the first lockdown in May 2020. The government has insisted that it was a work meeting.

PCR tests in Devon unavailable for second day

How to keep Omicron at bay – stop testing! – Owl

“The Prime Minister has now found himself caught between the Covid Recovery Group and supporters and the scientists.”

Does this rate as another Omnishambles?

James Johnson www.devonlive.com

No PCR test centres Devon have booking slots available for the second morning running as the Government comes under pressure to up the capacity of its testing.

A new record was set for the daily number of coronavirus cases on Wednesday, as all four UK nations reported their figures for the first time since Christmas Eve.

At times yesterday, there were no PCR tests or lateral flow tests available to order online, and in the morning there were no drive-in test centres available.

This morning in Devon, there are no test centres showing as having bookings available. For a short time there was availability but by 9.20am this had switched to none available.

The Government’s website showed availability for home-delivered tests but again by 9.20am this had reverted to none available.

Officials acknowledged that during periods of exceptional demand there could be “temporary pauses” in ordering or receiving tests, in an attempt to manage distribution across the system.

The reduced postal system over Christmas has also added to the issues.

No test centres available in Devon for the second day running.

No test centres available in Devon for the second day running.

But Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted there were global supply issues to a senior Tory MP.

Sir Roger Gale said that Mr Javid had confessed there was a problem with supplies – previously ministers and officials had insisted they had sufficient stocks but the problems were in delivering them to people’s homes or pharmacies.

The North Thanet MP said: “Saj was very honest with me, he said, ‘look, there isn’t a quick fix’.”

Sir Roger said “we have created the demand in England which we now can’t satisfy” as a result.

He added: “The Prime Minister has now found himself caught between the Covid Recovery Group and supporters and the scientists.

“We are now facing the situation where No 10 is saying go and get tested and the Department of Health is saying we haven’t got the tests, we can’t do it.”

He said Mr Javid is “busting a gut” to get supplies, “but we’re competing with a global market”.

Without lateral flow tests government policy is in jeopardy

It is almost a cruel hoax that is being perpetrated on the people of England.

Editorial www.independent.co.uk 

Whereas in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland there are restrictions on new year and Hogmanay festivities, and they have already had their disappointments, in England the apparently magnanimous UK government has said the parties can go ahead, virtually unhindered. Boris Johnson may even have saved his premiership by following the instincts of his rebellious backbenchers in sweeping away the puritan doubts of his advisers, and restoring Merrie England in the face of a pandemic: trebles all round. 

“Enjoy yourselves … but be cautious” is the message from his health minister, Gillian Keegan, doing the broadcast rounds. The key to that, though, is to take a lateral flow test (LFT) before venturing out or greeting guests for a home celebration. All very practical and sensible – except of course that there is a shortage of lateral flow tests, and has been for a while. The independent pharmacists describe the situation as “patchy”.

Visits to the NHS website are met with a message that postal deliveries are not possible. Parallel problems have arisen with the more accurate and involved PCR tests. Given the timings, it will now be impossible for many would-be revellers to swab themselves before they try to remember the words to “Auld Lang Syne” and they say hello to 2022. The temptation to skip the test is obvious; but so are the grim consequences.

The dire situation with the tests also threatens the ability of people to return to work after an infection. The condition for coming out of self-isolation is for two negative LFT tests taken 24 hours apart. Without these, it is impossible for anyone to tell if they are still infectious, even if they feel well. A further reduction in quarantine times to five days – which would help more people return to work and normal family life – while there is such a shortage of tests looks impossible. In England, despite the formal stance of lightened restrictions, the shortage of LFTs means that self-imposed lockdowns for many will feel as complete as at any other time during the past 21 months of crisis. The test shortages also distort the Covid statistical system and detecting the rise of Omicron in relation to the Delta coronavirus variant.

Therefore, much of the basis of the government’s policy towards Omicron is in jeopardy, because the tests people need aren’t there, and, in fact, because the effective rate of booster vaccinations remains too low overall to gain full herd immunity (given the lag of at least seven days for the booster jab to be properly effective), the successful booster campaign needs more time to rebuild the wall of coronavirus protection. It seems quite certain that the spread of the virus will be greater than if the tests were available freely. Even if Omicron doesn’t overwhelm the NHS, the inevitable spikes in hospitalisations will add to the challenges facing the health service, and make treating non-Covid cases harder.

While parliament is in recess, the prime minister invisible until now, and with the seasonal distractions, it’s worth noting that there has been little attempt by the authorities to explain exactly why the LFT shortage has arisen. The UK Health Security Agency blames “supply-side difficulties”, which is merely a restatement of the problem. It is said that there is no shortage of stock, but just of logistical capability, which, again, is no use to anyone (and sounds like a disturbing echo of the excuses offered last year for the severe shortages of personal protective equipment).

The Royal Mail, other delivery services and the pharmacies have done an admirable job in supplying these invaluable kits over many months. Why are they now being blamed by some for the problem? Why does there seem to have been little attempt to boost their supply? Is it poor planning by the UKHSA over many weeks as the limited plan B restrictions (which implied more lateral flow testing) were being contemplated? Perhaps the contracts with suppliers based in China were faulty. Some Tory MPs are claiming there is a global shortage of LFTs.

There may be many factors at work, but the public has a right to know what has gone wrong and why. With a relatively long shelf life, it should have been possible to stockpile many more lateral flow tests, and indeed PCR tests as the Omicron variant emerged a month ago, and case numbers were forecast to ramp up. It wasn’t done. Why? 

Hospitals in England asked to look for up to 4,000 emergency Covid beds

Hospitals have been asked to identify sites for up to 4,000 emergency beds to deal with a potential wave of Omicron admissions in England, as cases hit a record 183,000.

Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com 

On Wednesday, more than 10,000 patients were in hospital with Covid, a figure not reached since March.

NHS England confirmed that it was creating new small-scale “Nightingale” facilities with up to 100 beds each at eight hospitals across the country. The health service said it had asked trusts to identify empty spaces to accommodate beds in places such as gyms or teaching areas. NHS managers are aiming to create up to 4,000 beds as surge capacity if needed, with work on the first tranche, in temporary structures, starting this week.

A number of huge temporary hospitals, called the “Nightingales”, were built in exhibition halls in the first wave of the pandemic but were dismantled without being used to capacity.

The new approach will ask for surge capacity to be built in the grounds of hospitals to make it easier for staff to move between new and old sites and keep patients closer to diagnostics and emergency care. The first sites will be at Preston, Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester, Stevenage, St George’s in London, Ashford and Bristol. There are currently almost 90,000 adult acute and general beds available in England, with occupancy at about 90% on 19 December.

The announcement came as new data showed there were 10,462 people in hospital in England with Covid as of Wednesday, although it is still unclear how many were admitted with the disease and how many are there for another reason while also testing positive.

The number of patients on mechanical ventilation has remained fairly stable in recent weeks and even reduced since November. On Wednesday the number of deaths reported was 57.

Boris Johnson returned from his Christmas break at Chequers on Wednesday with a visit to a vaccine centre to urge people to get their booster jabs, saying up to 90% of people in intensive care had not received their third dose. He said people should celebrate New Year’s Eve but called on them to exercise caution and take tests.

The prime minister also warned that Omicron continued to “cause real problems” even though it was “obviously milder than the Delta variant”.

The NHS has called on people to have a “jabby new year”, highlighting research from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) that found that at the start of last month about three out of five patients in London’s intensive care units had not received a jab, a figure that it said was rising.

Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director, said the health service hoped never to have to use the surge beds but added: “Given the high level of Covid-19 infections and increasing hospital admissions, the NHS is now on a war footing.”

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, also said it was “absolutely right that we prepare for all scenarios and increase capacity”.

With the government still concerned about the possibility that the high case numbers of Omicron could overwhelm the NHS, Johnson is holding off from cutting the Covid isolation period to five days for those without symptoms.

The prime minister has come under pressure to reduce the UK’s isolation period again, after the US decided to halve it for those without symptoms from five to 10 days as long as they wear a mask in public.

The UK reduced its quarantine period from 10 to seven days last week if people test negative by lateral flow, but some other countries around the world are now looking at going further.

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and the government’s life sciences adviser, has indicated support for a shorter isolation period “if it was supported by lateral flow data”.

A No 10 source said everything was “kept under review” but insisted that there were “no immediate plans” to revise the quarantine period again so soon.

Several Tory backbenchers called on the government to consider a move similar to the US. Andrew Bridgen urged Johnson to reduce the isolation period, saying the biggest threat to the NHS was “forced absentees due to self-isolation”.

David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said a five-day isolation period followed by a lateral flow test “sounded sensible” for Omicron cases. “If the Americans are doing it, the question is why are we not doing it, not why we should,” he said.

Davis also called on the government to make sure it has enough doses of therapies such as Paxlovid that can reduce the risk of hospitalisation in severe Covid cases and to improve data on how many people are in hospital because of the coronavirus, rather than for another condition while also testing positive for the virus.

Lee Anderson, a 2019 intake Tory backbencher, said “all options to get people back to work quicker should be looked at”. Another MP added said “isolation could be a bigger issue than actual illness” and they would “support a review at the very least”.

Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people, health and work, said on Wednesday there were “no current plans in England to change the period” for isolation. She told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday: “Of course, we have actually only recently taken it down from 10 to seven, and we want to look at that – we want to make sure that that is working as we believe it ought to. We think the current period, therefore, is the right one, so we haven’t any plans to change that further.”

NHS managers have said they are as worried about the impact on patient care of staff shortages from people having to isolate as they are about surging admissions from Covid.

The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson,said the effect of greater social mixing over Christmas was still to come. He told BBC Breakfast: “We’re now seeing a significant increase in the level of staff absences, and quite a few of our chief executives are saying that they think that that’s probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge for them than necessarily the number of people coming in who need treatment because of Covid.”

In response to the new Nightingale sites, Hopson said it “must be the right ‘no regrets later’ move to make these preparations now” but highlighted the difficulty of staffing them.

“Given the other pressures on the NHS and the current level of staff absences, staffing this capacity would be a major challenge,” he said. “But co-location on existing hospital sites maximises the NHS’s ability to meet that challenge.”