More than one in six NHS trusts across England have declared a critical incident due to Covid pressures, a cabinet minister has revealed, saying the Omicron variant was putting “very real” pressure on the health service.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said ministers were trying to find the right compromise between imposing further restrictions and not allowing hospitals to be “overrun” given new cases of the virus have reached historically high levels.
Of England’s 137 NHS trusts, at least 24 have declared a critical incident, Shapps said, meaning they have reached an alert level signalling priority services may be under threat.
He added it was “crazy” some people were still not getting vaccinated given the increased protection a booster jab offers against the Omicron variant, but that the government would not take the “Draconian approach” of making vaccines mandatory.
Shapps told Sky News it was “not entirely unusual” for NHS trusts to “go critical over the winter – often with things like the flu pandemic”, but conceded “there are very real pressures which I absolutely recognise”.
Plan B, which came into force last month across England with a return to work-from-home advice, face coverings and the introduction of Covid passes, was still the right way forward, Shapps said.
He faced down criticism that England is out of step with the three other UK nations which all imposed tougher restrictions in the light of the more transmissible variant.
Shapps said: “What we want to do is steer the country through the Omicron wave, and I think Plan B has so far been shown to be the right way forward – not shutting down the country yet again with all the costs to people’s mental health and elsewhere.”
Hospitalisations have been slower to rise than Covid cases, with ministers buoyed by the booster rollout. A further 967 people went into hospital with the virus, according to the latest daily figure published on Wednesday, taking the total to 17,276 – the highest since last February.
However, the issue has been compounded further by NHS staff being among the hundreds of thousands of people self-isolating due to the rapidly increasing number of Covid cases. A further 194,747 infections were reported on Wednesday, one of the highest on record since the pandemic began.
Jon Ashworth, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said it was vital key workers – including NHS staff – got access to lateral flow tests that enable double-vaccinated people to end their isolation early from day seven if they test negative twice.
He said there had been “problems with the supply” and added: “Ministers have really got to get a grip of that.”
Some restrictions on travel have been lifted, with the requirement for all those arriving in England to get a pre-departure PCR test now scrapped.
Shapps said travel restrictions were always temporary and that PCR-testing everyone who entered the country to check if they had Omicron was no longer necessary, given it is now the dominant variant in the UK and spreading fast in many other parts of the world.
He said the previous testing rule had “effectively outlived its usefulness when it comes to travel”.