UK health minister says Covid cases may hit 100,000 a day in winter, no contingency measures for now

Commuters, some wearing face coverings to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, ride a Transport for London (TfL) underground train in London on October 20, 2021.
TOLGA AKMEN | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Wednesday said the government won’t be implementing the so-called “plan B” strategy of its fall-winter Covid plan, defying warnings from health leaders that the country risks “stumbling into a winter crisis.”

“We are looking closely at the data and we won’t be implementing our plan B of contingency measures at this point,” Javid said, speaking at the government’s first coronavirus press conference in more than a month.

“But we will be staying vigilant, preparing for all eventualities while strengthening our vital defenses that can help us fight back against this virus.”

Javid said the NHS was “performing with distinction,” acknowledging that the health service was seeing greater pressure but rejected the suggestion that this pressure was unsustainable.

“We will do what it takes to make sure that this pressure doesn’t become unsustainable and that we don’t allow the NHS to become overwhelmed.”

Javid said winter poses the “greatest threat” to the recovery from Covid, adding that cases could yet climb as high as 100,000 per day.

It comes shortly after the National Health Service Confederation, which represents organizations across the U.K. healthcare sector, warned some Covid restrictions must be reintroduced “without delay” if the government is to keep people healthy and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed this winter.

This is because the NHS is seeing a “worrying” increase in Covid cases in hospitals and the community as it prepares for a busy winter period, they added.

Britain’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaks during a press conference at Downing Street on October 20, 2021 in London, England.
Toby Melville | WPA Pool | Getty Images News

The U.K. recorded 49,139 new Covid cases on Wednesday, according to the latest government data, and 179 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

The seven-day average of new Covid cases in the U.K. has jumped from around 34,000 at the beginning of October. Meanwhile, the number of people in hospital who have Covid has surged by 11% in a week.

To date, the U.K. has recorded over 8.5 million Covid cases and 139,265 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.K. ranks among the countries with the highest death tolls worldwide.

Making matters worse, potentially, is a new mutation of the delta variant that British experts are watching closely.

Downing Street said earlier this week that it was closely monitoring rising cases, but the cabinet had not yet discussed contingency measures.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News on Wednesday that it was not yet time for the government’s so-called “Plan B” strategy, saying the focus should be on administering more booster shots instead.

Kwarteng also ruled out the prospect of another national lockdown.

Rising cases across Europe

Officials from the World Health Organization on Wednesday noted the rise in cases across Europe, including in the U.K., blaming it at least in part on the easing of Covid restrictions.

“The Northern hemisphere is heading into another winter, and just need to be a little concerned about that uptick across Europe as we enter the late, late, deep autumn,” Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s head of emergencies programs, said in a Q&A. “As societies are opening up, we’re seeing those numbers rise, and in a number of countries, we’re already seeing the health system begin to come under pressure, we’re seeing the number of available ICU beds decreasing.”

Last month, the government outlined its fall-winter plan for tackling the coronavirus crisis, setting out a series of measures designed to avert the need for more lockdowns. These include vaccine uptake, test, trace and isolate, supporting the NHS and social care, government guidance and communication, and embracing an international approach to the pandemic.

If the NHS was deemed to be at risk of coming under unsustainable pressure, Javid said those contingency measures could kick in across England. That includes the possibility of making masks mandatory in certain settings, vaccine passports for events and encouraging remote working.

Health and care policy is devolved across the U.K., with different provisions made in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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