UK reports record Covid cases as UK businesses offered 'lifeline'

Data from hospitals has yet to convince ministers that more curbs are needed

Customers queue outside a fashion shop in central London amid surging cases of the Omicron variant. Getty Images

Businesses in England expressed relief after the government ruled out further coronavirus restrictions before the new year, even as new records for daily cases were reached yet again.

Data from hospitals has yet to convince ministers that more curbs are needed, offering the hospitality industry a “real lifeline” after restaurants and nightclubs were given the all-clear to open on New Year’s Eve.

While ministers urged people to be cautious, they took encouragement from signs that the Omicron variant is causing less severe disease in Britain than previous waves of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, a record 129,471 new cases were reported, a figure made worse by the fact that it was for England and Wales only.

The UK registered rising cases in the run-up to Christmas, but on Monday, there were 98,515 new cases, the first time in the past five days that the figure dropped below 100,000.

On Tuesday, with only England and Wales reporting because of different holiday periods in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the cases again bounced above 100,000.

Despite the new cases, people appear to be spending less time in hospital if they do become ill with the variant, said Environment Secretary George Eustice – a factor that could ease the burden on the National Health Service.

“At the moment we don't think that the evidence supports any more interventions beyond what we have done,” Mr Eustice told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“But obviously we have got to keep it under very close review, because if it is the case that we started to see a big increase in hospitalisations then we would need to act further.”

Professor John Bell, an Oxford University immunologist, told the same programme that he was reassured by the apparently milder form of the virus - which he described as not "the same disease we were seeing a year ago".

"The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago - intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely - that is now history in my view, and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue,” he said.

Although hospital numbers are rising, the figures do not yet compare to those in the previous peaks that pushed the UK into strict lockdowns. More than 32 million people have received booster doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Hospitals are reporting that they can cope with current caseloads, although doctors are stretched and staff absences are becoming as great a problem as rising admissions, said NHS Providers boss Chris Hopson.

On top of that, there is anecdotal evidence that more people than before are testing positive in hospital after being admitted for another reason, he said – meaning they should not necessarily be counted as a severe case of Covid-19.

Numbers are “definitely rising, but not precipitately so”, Mr Hopson said. “Frustrating though it may be, we need more data before we can reach any firm conclusions on what the full risk from Omicron is.”

Businesses welcomed the reprieve from new restrictions as they prepare for the new year. PA

Reprieve for England

The reprieve in England puts its health policies at odds with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the devolved governments brought in restrictions after Christmas. Much of Europe has also imposed tougher measures.

Unlike in other parts of the UK, English football grounds can stay open with full crowds and New Year’s Eve events can go ahead without capacity limits. Some venues are required to check Covid certificates, and people are encouraged to work from home where possible.

Any move to toughen restrictions by Prime Minister Boris Johnson would risk further antagonising his own Conservative MPs after weeks of bruising political setbacks.

The British Chambers of Commerce said it was “extremely helpful” for businesses to have certainty about their New Year plans after ministers kept them in suspense over Christmas.

“This period is a critical time for many sectors, including hospitality, and firms will be pleased that they will be able to continue trading throughout,” it said.

Kate Nicholls, the head of industry body UK Hospitality, welcomed what she said was a pragmatic and proportionate approach by ministers.

“This will give a real lifeline for many who have struggled with the loss of trade in the run-up to Christmas, and the loss of New Year on top of that would have been devastating for many,” she said.

“It will be a welcome boost and keeping restrictions to a minimum and lifting the remaining restrictions as quickly as possible to help the beleaguered sector back on to the road to recovery."

Updated: December 28th 2021, 6:39 PM