Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
This week will be “crucial” for England as the government determines whether to act to curb the accelerating Omicron outbreak, a health service chief has said.
Boris Johnson will also come under increasing pressure to limit people’s movement if hospital admissions continue the sharp rise of the past week.
The UK Prime Minister has taken a risk by acceding to pressure from backbench MPs not to impose new restrictions over the Christmas holidays.
But Chris Hopson, the head of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals in England, said the government “must be ready to introduce new restrictions at pace if they’re needed”.
There is growing evidence of rising coronavirus cases in the over-60s, which could cause hospital admissions to rise throughout January.
The latest figures, released on Sunday, showed that hospital admissions had increased by 50 per cent in the UK over the past week, with almost 10,000 needing care.
There were 137,000 new Covid infections and a 50 per cent rise in fatalities in the past week, with 981 deaths recorded.
The Omicron surge is spreading from London through the rest of Britain and among all age groups.
Admissions have more than doubled in the North East and Yorkshire NHS region with no evidence that stays caused by Omicron were shorter than those resulting from Delta infection.
There is also a suggestion that intensive care beds are now being increasingly used by Covid-19 patients, with a seven per cent increase in England in the past week.
The NHS is under increasing strain across Britain as hospital admissions reach levels not seen since last March.
Nearly 2,000 new patients were admitted in a single day of last week, according to data released on Saturday.
At the same time, more than 110,000 staff, nearly one in 10 NHS workers nationwide, were absent from work on Friday, with almost half sick or self-isolating because of Covid-19.
“We still need to watch and wait,” Mr Hopson tweeted. “Govt must be ready to introduce new restrictions at pace if they’re needed.”
Harsher restrictions in England would be “an absolute last resort”, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said on Sunday.
The country must “try to live with Covid”, he said.
He said there were “enormous health, social and economic costs of lockdowns”.
Britain has detected an unprecedented number of Covid cases, more than one million, in the past week.
Some other countries in Europe, including France, has reported similar surges.
But while the devolved nations of the UK have reintroduced some safety measures, England has been more relaxed.
The government has mandated mask-wearing in most settings, brought in Covid pass system for nightclubs and large events, and encouraged people to work from home.
It is relying on a stepped-up vaccination programme in which every adult was offered a third dose by the end of 2021.
About 60 per cent of the eligible population has received a booster.
But on Saturday, Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi said the government would recommend that secondary school pupils, aged 11 and up, would wear face coverings in classrooms as a temporary measure.
He conceded that remote learning would become necessary as staff and pupil absences rise.
“I think Omicron is hopefully going to be a relatively short, sharp shock,” said Dr Andrew Goddard, the president of the Royal College of Physicians.
“Provided the number of hospital admissions as Omicron that hits the over-65s isn’t too bad.”