More than 2m people in the UK were infected with coronavirus last week, according to the latest official figures, causing a jump in staff absences in the health service and fast-rising admissions to hospitals.
Data from the Office for National Statistics, released on Friday, revealed that in the week ending December 23 nearly 2.3m people across the UK had the virus.
In England, the rate was one in every 25 people, up from one in 45 a week earlier, while London had the highest rate, at one in 15 residents. The comparable rates in the devolved nations were each about one in 40.
On Friday, a total of 189,846 new Covid cases were reported across the UK, the highest figure for any 24-hour period during the pandemic and an increase of 55 per cent on the same day last week.
New official estimates from the UK Health Security Agency published on Friday found that Covid-19 booster shots were 63 per cent effective in stopping symptomatic infection of the Omicron coronavirus variant and 88 per cent effective against hospitalisation a fortnight after being administered.
Covid-related staff absences across the NHS in England were up 31 per cent week on week on December 26, according to NHS figures, with 24,632 employees either off sick or self-isolating. In total, about 68,000 staff — 5 per cent of the workforce — were off sick on that day for all reasons.
Staff absence rates were highest in the north of England. In the North West, where Covid-related absences are climbing fastest, 6.2 per cent of the workforce were off work for all reasons on December 26.
Despite the trend, UK prime minister Boris Johnson insisted the health service was better placed to respond to a Covid surge than last winter.
In London, the region first hit by the Omicron coronavirus variant and where hospitals are coming under the most pressure, the issue of Covid-related absences has been particularly acute.
Almost 6,000 staff at acute hospital trusts were absent because of the virus on December 23, a fivefold increase from the 1,174 staff absent at the start of the month. But there are signs of some respite in recent days with absences falling 25 per cent between December 23 and December 26.
Simultaneously, the number of patients being treated primarily for Covid in the capital has almost doubled from 850 on December 1 to 1,630 by December 28.
Prof Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the NHS was facing “a double hit” of reduced staffing levels and soaring Covid admissions.
“It is mostly a staff sickness problem for the next two to three weeks,” he said. “There isn’t much you can do about that, you just have to ride the storm.”
But he said that in the earliest Omicron hotspots, the staffing problems may abate in time for when health leaders expect the worst of the wave to hit. “We are beginning to see people who were off with Covid returning,” he said. “Hopefully, staffing levels may improve when the number of Covid cases starts to pick up.”
In his New Year’s message, Johnson said: “Whatever the anxieties we may have about the weeks and months ahead, particularly about Omicron and the growing numbers in hospitals . . . our position this December 31 is incomparably better than last year.”
He added that the government had met its target of offering every eligible adult in England a booster shot by year-end.
Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England national medical director, said staff in the health service were “braced for the worst”, adding that hospitals were “doing everything possible to free up beds” in anticipation of more Covid hospitalisations driven by the Omicron surge.
Bed occupancy on acute and general wards in England’s hospitals has been cut from 93 per cent on December 21 to 87 per cent on December 28.
Prof Anthony Gordon, an intensive care consultant at St Mary’s Hospital in London, predicted the NHS “may have to limit elective care [and] potentially cancel non-urgent operations” to deal with the pressures from Omicron.
While the numbers being treated primarily for Covid remain much lower than during earlier waves, the NHS has yet to cancel most elective surgery this time around and is facing high pressures in accident and emergency departments
The share of Covid-positive patients in London, who are not being treated primarily for the disease has risen from 18 per cent to 33 per cent during December, driven by Omicron’s high transmissibility, but this masks a sustained increase in the numbers being treated primarily for Covid.
In the week to December 28 the number of “incidental” Covid-positive patients in London increased by 396, but the number being treated for the disease rose by 433.
The number of Covid patients on ventilators in London has increased slightly during December but this is a much slower rate of increase than that in overall patient numbers, indicating that the share of patients progressing to a very serious condition is lower than during previous waves.
Dr Zudin Puthucheary, a London-based critical care consultant and a member of the Intensive Care Society, said ICUs in the capital were “sitting and waiting” for a surge, which is expected in mid-January.
He said plans were afoot to redeploy staff “in the opposite direction” from earlier waves, moving clinicians from critical care to general wards, where staff were taking “the absolute brunt” of rising admissions.
Separately on Friday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved Paxlovid, a promising anti-Covid drug manufactured by Pfizer, for use in the UK. The UK has ordered 2.75m courses of the oral antiviral and plans to use it to treat elderly and vulnerable patients.