Britons will have to learn to live with coronavirus in 2022 to avoid the worst effects of prolonged lockdowns, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.
He said that during his six months in the role, he had been struck by the health, economic and social problems caused by restrictions on normal daily life.
New Covid-19 curbs should be an “absolute last resort”, with the UK entering the new year with some of the least restrictive measures in Europe, Mr Javid wrote in the Daily Mail.
“I’ve been determined that we must give ourselves the best chance of living alongside the virus and avoiding strict measures in the future,” he wrote.
He said it was inevitable there would be a big increase in the number of people admitted to hospital with the virus in January, given the lag between infection and serious illness. The UK reported almost 190,000 new cases on Friday, a record.
The British Medical Association called for further public health measures “urgently to prevent the health service being completely overwhelmed”.
Figures showed that hospital admissions in England have risen to their highest since January last year.
The number of National Health Service hospital staff absent with the virus or isolating after contact with a case has almost doubled in a month.
Senior officials said hospital managers would have to consider a temporary bar on visitors in the next few weeks.
Matthew Taylor, who leads the body that represents hospital trusts, said such a move would be a “last resort”.
“When you’re facing the kind of pressures the health service is going to be under for the next few weeks, this is the kind of thing managers have to do,” he said.
“I understand how much people want to return to normal and I’m confident that, as this year progresses, we will be able to do that, and we all hope that 2022 is the year in which coronavirus just becomes an illness that we live with, not an illness that dominates our lives.
“But you can have the optimism but still recognise the next few weeks are going to be very tough and we need to do whatever is necessary to get us through these next few weeks.”