Boris Johnson has warned it would be “absolute folly” to say the pandemic is over – but said Omicron “is plainly milder” than other variants.
Despite a huge increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, the prime minister said the UK is in a better position than most other countries due to the “very, very high level of vaccination”.
However, he said despite Omicron being “plainly milder” than other variants, the NHS is under pressure due to its high transmissibility – and the public must do everything they can to help relieve that pressure by following plan B measures.
Mr Johnson, speaking at a vaccination centre in Aylesbury, said: “My view is that all the evidence [shows] Omicron is much milder, considerably milder than previous variants.
“And we are much more boosted so our position is far, far better, but I think this is what I would say to everybody: looking at the pressures on the NHS in the next couple of weeks and maybe longer, looking at the numbers of people who are going into hospital, it would be absolute folly to say that this thing is all over now bar the shouting.
“We have got to remain cautious, we have got to remain with plan B, we have got to get boosted.”
The prime minister added that fewer people are being admitted to ICU (intensive care units) with Omicron than previous variants, but most of those in hospital with COVID have not had their booster jab.
And he stuck to the same line his ministers have been going with since the New Year, saying they will keep all restrictions under review “but the mixture of things we are doing at the moment is, I think, the right one”.
His comments came after Chris Hopson, head of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, told Sky News the NHS is dealing with three issues at once: rising COVID hospital cases, staff absences due to COVID, and an already-busy NHS and social care system.
He warned putting pressure on staff to meet the gap in demand is “unsustainable”.
“We are asking our staff to go and go and go again, every day of the week,” he told Sky News. “Everyone’s talking about an almost impossible workload.”
He added that a “serious” national conversation needs to be had about better investment in the NHS – but said the reduction in isolation time for those who test positive from 10 days to seven is “already having” a helpful impact on staff absences.
Earlier on Monday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News ministers are “concerned” the number of over-50s being admitted to hospital with COVID is rising.
He added: “If we see more leakage of infection in the over-50s – because most of the surge in infections from the Omicron variant has been in the under-50s – then that is more likely that those people end up with severe infection and hospitalisation.
“But the good news is obviously that 90% of those people over 50 have had the booster jab – that is the real protection against severe infection and hospitalisation.”