The UK recorded 78,610 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the highest daily total since the start of pandemic as England's chief medical officer warned that the country faced two epidemics on top of each other.
The daily cases figure eclipses the previous record of 68,053 which was reported on January 8 this year as the country faced a second wave of the outbreak.
England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty said the country is dealing with two epidemics and records will continue to be broken in the coming weeks.
“So what we've got is two epidemics, on top of one another, an existing Delta epidemic, roughly flat, and a very rapidly growing Omicron epidemic on top of it,” he told a televised briefing alongside Boris Johnson, the prime minister. “I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up.”
Scientific advisers fear that the true number of daily infections may be as high as 200,000, which could lead to an additional 40,000 fatalities in the next six months.
Mr Johnson said it was “absolutely vital” that everyone gets a coronavirus booster to fight the new variant but declined to introduce further restrictions in light of the new figures.
“The doubling rate of Omicron in some regions is now down to less than two days”, he said at a Downing Street news briefing on Wednesday.
“I’m afraid we’re also seeing the inevitable increase in hospitalisations up by 10 per cent nationally, week on week, and up by almost a third in London.”
However, he added there were also “signs of hope” and a “great national fightback has begun”.
“The progress we are making with the booster is vital,” he said. “People have responded with an amazing spirit of duty and obligation to others and I want to say that each and every one of you who rolls up your sleeve to get jabbed is helping this national effort.”
Mr Johnson said tighter rules brought in under Plan B on Monday were the “right thing to do”, when asked about the possibility of further restrictions.
He said the current measures in place and the ramped-up booster rollout were the “right mixture” of approaches.
Prof Whitty called for “prioritising those things that really matter” and advised people not to mix “with people you don't have to, for either work or the family things that really matter to you".
The top medical adviser urged people to cut down on socialising over the Christmas period, adding he would “strongly encourage” people to take tests before visiting vulnerable people, and to meet in areas of good ventilation or outdoors if possible.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said a further 4,671 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 had been reported in the most recent 24-hour reporting period, bringing the total of confirmed Omicron cases to 10,017.
The UKHSA's Dr Jenny Harries said Omicron is “probably the most significant threat we've had since the start of the pandemic” and to expect a “staggering” number of cases in the next few days.
She told MPs on the Transport Committee that the “real potential risk” is whether “cases turn into severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths”, but that it was “too early” to be clear on that.
Meanwhile, Dr David Nabarro, special envoy on Covid-19 to the World Health Organisation, said the Omicron variant should not be dismissed as mild, if virulent.
“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease the sheer number of cases will once again overwhelm health systems,” he said.
"We need to do two things, to prevent severe disease and death through vaccination which is why the booster programme that was just discussed is so important.
"Secondly, we must do everything we can to reduce spread and lessen the size of the surge by reducing our contacts."
He added this means wearing face masks, maintaining physical distance, keeping windows open and maintaining "superb hygiene".
"Today is just the beginning of an extraordinary acceleration," Dr Nabarro said.
Earlier in the day, the mandatory use of coronavirus health certificates to prove vaccination — or a negative test result — was introduced to gain entry into large venues in England.
Compulsory mask-wearing has also been extended and work-from-home guidance was reintroduced under the government’s Plan B to tackle the pandemic this winter.
The government on Wednesday said a further 165 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for the coronavirus.
Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have now been 172,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.