Boris Johnson latest Covid press conference was slightly confusing. The Prime Minister spent nearly an hour saying nothing particularly new. He warned that there was ‘considerable pressure’ on the NHS at the moment and unveiled daily priority lateral flow testing for 100,000 essential workers so that key services, including healthcare, don’t seize up due to staff absences. But while he accepted that hospitals were feeling the heat, he also insisted that there was no data suggesting that a lockdown was necessary or helpful. Indeed, he argued:
‘We have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again. We can keep our schools and our businesses open, and we can find a way to live with this virus.’
The NHS would, he said, move to a ‘war footing’, with the military on standby for the trusts that are really struggling. Meanwhile, the public should be as cautious as possible and get their booster jabs.
Johnson’s language on jabs was very forceful. He said it was ‘absolutely crazy’ that there were so many slots available for vaccinations this week and yet so many people who remain unvaccinated. He also pointed out that the majority of people in intensive care had not had their booster jabs and dropped another hint that the UK may follow the lead of other countries and only consider people who’ve had three doses to be fully vaccinated. Over 90pc of those in intensive care with Covid have not had a booster, he said. “Over 60 per cent of those in intensive care with Covid have not had any vaccination at all,” he said (this is one of the figures we track on The Spectator’s data hub).
One question that the Prime Minister didn’t really answer was whether the NHS was already overwhelmed, given the number of trusts that are declaring critical incidents — six — and warning they cannot carry out certain treatments because they have so many staff off work. He said:
The NHS is under huge pressure. I won’t provide a definition of what being overwhelmed would constitute because I think that different trusts and different places, at different moments, will feel at least temporarily overwhelmed. And hospitals at the moment are sending out signals saying that they are feeling the pressure hugely. I understand that, and I thank them for the work that they are doing. It is absolutely fantastic.
Previous lockdowns have been called in part to ‘protect the NHS’, but the PM seemed to be suggesting this evening that testing was what would protect the health service, not more lockdowns. His line that ‘further restrictions are not cost-free’ will please his party, including those cabinet ministers who pushed back against more curbs on the virus before Christmas. But if the pressure on the NHS becomes unsustainable and measures become necessary, all this will only bring very temporary relief for Johnson.
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