The spread of Omicron cases in London may be past its peak but Britain is still in a “critical phase” of the coronavirus pandemic, a health official has said.
Prof Kevin Fenton, a regional director for London at the UK’s Health Security Agency, said infection rates were starting to fall across the capital after reaching their apex around the new year.
It came as a Cabinet minister called for Britain to become one of the first major economies to treat the virus as endemic and show the world how to manage it in the years ahead.
Britain will have to “deal with this, however long it remains with us, whether that’s five, six, seven, 10 years,” Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said.
The UK announced 141,472 cases on Sunday, a slight drop from a week earlier. There were 97 deaths.
Prof Fenton said the rate of increase of hospital admissions was slowing in London, with less pressure on intensive care than in previous waves – a fact linked by ministers to Omicron’s apparently milder effects compared to the Delta variant.
“We think we may have passed or are at the peak,” he told Sky News.
But data suggests that about one in 10 Londoners is still infected with the virus, Prof Fenton said.
He said high rates of staff absence, as well as typical winter sickness, were increasing the strain on general hospital wards. Unvaccinated people were the cause of much of this pressure, he said.
“We’re not yet out of this critical phase of the pandemic, although we may well be past the peak,” he said.
London was an early hotspot of Omicron cases, leading Mayor Sadiq Khan to declare a state of emergency last month.
But it no longer has the country’s highest infection rates. Regions in the north of England, as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have witnessed more cases per head in the past week.
This is despite the three devolved governments bringing in restrictions on social gatherings after Christmas. There are no such measures in England.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said the wave had arrived later in Wales and said infection rates in the country were lower than in some English hotspots.
“When we have different messages across our border, that does make it more difficult for us,” he said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government sets health policies for England, said on Wednesday that he hopes to “ride out” the Omicron wave without further restrictions. The total death toll since the start of the pandemic passed the milestone of 150,000 on Saturday.
The record infection levels have led to a scramble for testing equipment, with ministers promising last month to treble their supplies.
Mr Zahawi denied reports on Sunday that free rapid tests, which people can order directly from the government, may be scrapped in the coming months.
He said he was “puzzled” by a report in The Sunday Times which said they could be limited to high-risk settings and people with symptoms.
Scotland’s government and the opposition Labour Party had both expressed opposition to any such move.
“This is absolutely not where we are at,” Mr Zahawi said. “For January alone we’ve got 425 million lateral flow tests coming in and they will continue to be available for free.”
Asked whether there were plans to stop lateral flow tests being free, he said: “Absolutely not.”
Mr Zahawi indicated he would support reducing the isolation period for positive cases from seven days to five to help reduce staffing shortages.
But he said he would “absolutely be driven by advice from the experts”.