Covid: Coronavirus curbs kept under close review – minister

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The government will keep its decision not to impose further Covid curbs in England under very close review, a cabinet minister has said.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the evidence did not support more interventions at the moment.

The hospitality sector described the decision not to add further measures as a "lifeline" for pubs, bars and clubs.

But there is concern about the impact on hospitals and schools of staff having to self-isolate.

Prof Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Breakfast that in time people with Covid should be allowed to "go about their normal lives" as they would with a common cold.

"If the self-isolation rules are what's making the pain associated with Covid, then we need to do that perhaps sooner rather than later," he said.

He suggested this might be able to happen "once we're past Easter", depending on the effects of the disease at that time.

Some scientists advising ministers are concerned the government may be taking an overly optimistic approach when it comes to restrictions.

England has not gone as far as the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – which have all introduced further restrictions this week.

On Monday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said people should remain cautious and celebrate outside on New Year's Eve if possible. He said the government would reassess whether more measures were needed in the new year.

Mr Eustice said that "if we do see a big increase in hospital admissions" then ministers would have to act.

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Pubs, bars and restaurants have been hard hit in the run-up to Christmas, due to mass cancellations over Omicron variant fears.

UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said the decision to not go beyond Plan B measures in England had been a "pragmatic and proportionate" decision by the government.

She said: "This will give a real lifeline for many who have struggled with the loss of trade in the run-up to Christmas and the loss of new year on top of that would have been devastating for many.

She said keeping restrictions to a minimum and lifting the remaining ones as quickly as possible would help.

The Night Time Industries Association described the decision as "amazing news" while the Music Venue Trust called for help to improve ventilation along with "more clarity" on the government's long-term vision.

But Andy Wood, chief executive of Adnams brewery, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the sector would need support – with more than half of Christmas business being lost.

He said hospitality had the "economic equivalent of long Covid".

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To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, Watch: Sajid Javid explains why England is choosing a different path from the other nations

Prof Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University said he thought the decision not to introduce new curbs before the new year was "probably fine", with data showing "very low" numbers of vaccinated people in intensive care.

"This is not the same disease as we were seeing a year ago," he said, adding that people in the UK had been pretty sensible in their behaviour.

He told the Today programme that while there had been an increase in the number of people on ventilators in London – up to 232 as of 27 December – it remained below 400, which was a marker being watched for when considering further restrictions.

Sir John said staff quarantining was putting additional stress on the health service, and that lateral flow tests were "quite a good way" of showing who was infectious – rather than cutting isolation periods as has been done in the US.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said some trust executives he had spoken to thought staff absences due to self-isolation were going to be a "bigger problem and challenge" than the number of people being treated for Covid.

He told BBC Breakfast that while there may come a point where Covid was treated like a common cold, that should not be the case for people who work in the NHS, as they worked with potentially "very, very vulnerable" people.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the big issue was what would happen as young people retuned to school from the Christmas holidays and whether there would be enough staff to sustain in-person education.

Conservative MPs – who recently inflicted the largest rebellion of Mr Johnson's premiership over the introduction of Covid passes – were among those who welcomed Monday's announcement of no new restrictions.

Senior backbencher Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown said that the data on hospital admissions did not support the imposition of further restrictions.

However, some experts who advise the government were less enthusiastic.

Prof Andrew Hayward – epidemiologist and a member of the advisory group Sage – said ministers seemed to be acting "on the optimistic end of the spectrum".

And Prof Danny Altmann suggested that there was now a great divergence between scientific advice and legislation.

Another virologist, University of Brighton's Dr Sarah Pitt, called for "a few measures" to curb the spread of Omicron, telling LBC that while there is a balance between the economy and health they were "not mutually exclusive".

Omicron: What we know

  • This variant is very contagious and spreads faster than others
  • Vaccines and boosters are still essential and do a great job at protecting against severe disease
  • It is milder – if you catch it, the risk of needing hospital treatment is up to 70% lower than with previous variants – but that is largely because many of us have built up immunity from vaccines and past infections rather than changes to the virus

Read more here.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting urged the government to publish all relevant advice and data, so the public could be reassured that Boris Johnson was not simply "capitulating" to members of his own party.

After a two-day halt in publishing data, it was revealed that more than 300,000 new Covid cases had been recorded on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

UK-wide hospital data has not been updated since before Christmas but NHS England revealed that there were 1,281 Covid-19 hospital admissions in the country on Christmas Day – the highest number for any day since 16 February.

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