At his first press conference of the new year, the prime minister said the country can “get through” the latest Covid wave despite warnings of the NHS facing huge pressures.
On Tuesday, daily lab-confirmed coronavirus cases in England and Scotland exceeded 200,000 for the first time, which follows multiple hospitals across the country declaring critical incidents amid warnings the service is “in a state of crisis”.
But the PM said there is a “good chance” he will not have to impose fresh restrictions to tackle the massive wave of Omicron cases as he confirmed he would advocate to his Cabinet the need to stick with work-from-home guidance, mask-wearing and Covid health passes.
He did warn that anyone who believes the battle against the disease is over is “profoundly wrong”, and acknowledged now is the time for the “utmost caution”.
He told a Downing Street press conference – on the eve of the review date for the restrictions announced four weeks ago – that a combination of booster vaccines and Plan B means “we have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again”.
He added: “We can keep our schools and our businesses open and we can find a way to live with this virus.”
The question of whether further Omicron controls could be needed in England will depend on if the variant “peaks how quickly it blows through”, Johnson said.
He added: “I think, at the moment, it depends. To be absolutely frank with you, it depends on whether the virus will behave in the way it perhaps has behaved in South Africa, whether it peaks, how quickly it blows through.
“But if you ask me to guess, I would say we have a good chance of getting through the Omicron wave without the need for further restrictions, and without the need certainly for a lockdown.”
The prime minister accepted the weeks ahead are going to be “challenging” and said “some services will be disrupted by staff absences” as he pledged to “fortify” the NHS to withstand the pressures and protect supply chains.
Under the measures, he said 100,000 “critical workers” will get lateral flow tests on every working day starting on Monday.
“As our NHS moves to a war footing, I will be recommending to Cabinet tomorrow that we continue with Plan B,” he added.
“Because the public have responded and changed their behaviour, your behaviour, buying valuable time to get boosters in arms and help the NHS to cope with the Omicron wave.”
England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty acknowledged that “some hospitals, some areas of the country” will come under “very substantial pressure over the next couple of weeks” with high numbers of staff isolating over infections compounding the typical winter pressures.