The Government will “throw everything at” the Covid booster programme to tackle the Omicron variant, the Health Secretary has said, with GPs only focusing on urgent needs and vaccinations for the next few weeks.
Sajid Javid said there are 10 people in hospital in England with Omicron at the moment and nobody has died, but warned that cases, hospital admissions and deaths will all rise.
“We’re going to throw everything at it.”
He added: “What we’ve learnt about this new variant, Omicron, in the past week is, first of all, it’s spreading at a phenomenal rate.
“The number of infections is doubling every two or three days, there’s going to be a tidal wave of infection.
More than 40% of UK adults have already had a booster vaccination but the Prime Minister has moved forward his target to offer jabs to all adults in a bid to head off the worst effects of Omicron.
In a TV address on Sunday evening, Boris Johnson said everyone over 18 in England “will have the chance to get their booster before the new year”.
“We’re seeing phenomenal growth, we’re seeing a huge number of infections,” Mr Javid told BBC Breakfast, adding that even if Omicron turns out to be milder than Delta, it will still lead to a high number of hospital admissions.
On whether he could give an “assurance” that “anyone who has the symptoms of cancer, and specifically in this case breast cancer, will still be able to be seen within two weeks, Mr Javid said: “That will be completely unaffected by this new mission.”
He said, however, that planned operations may need to be postponed as the NHS tries to tackle Omicron and turns its attention to boosters.
“So that might mean, for example, it might mean a knee operation or a hip operation or something… sadly someone has probably been waiting for a long time in any case, but the hospital concerned would have the right to postpone it if it meant they would get a lot more booster jabs done,” he said.
“It does mean that, when it comes to primary care, for the next couple of weeks that our GPs will only be focusing on urgent needs and vaccinations.
Asked on Time Radio whether people will suffer because they cannot get the treatment they need on the NHS, he said: “Well, that certainly should not be the case at all because, as well as focusing on this, there will be a focus on any urgent need and any, of course, emergency care.”
He added: “If we don’t do this, if the NHS doesn’t do this, then more people will suffer.”
Mr Javid told broadcasters the Government is not “planning any additional measures beyond what’s already been announced”, despite calls from some experts for further restrictions to tackle Omicron.
He said the current measures are “sensible” but “alongside that, we also need the defences of the vaccine.”
He added: “We are, sadly, once again in a race between the virus and the vaccines and we need to stay ahead in that race.”
Mr Javid said it is “better to act now than to wait for the deaths and hospitalisations to come through,” adding: “We have seen what Covid is capable of… you start seeing a rise in cases, people get ill, some into hospital and some sadly die. It’s much better to act early…”
The member of government advisory body the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “At the moment, we’re in a situation where the new variant in effect is coming at us like an express train.
“We’ve got to do something or else we’re in real danger of overwhelming our society and overwhelming the NHS.
“And there’s so many things you can do. The first thing, and the most obvious thing, is that if you reduce the number of social contacts you have you limit the spread of the infection.
“Now, nobody wants to give up their Christmas parties, and nobody wants to miss out on meeting up with people.
“It’s a little bit like Christmas dinner – if you have too big a Christmas breakfast, then you spoil your appetite for your Christmas dinner, which is what really counts.
“And I think, in the same way, we need to think really seriously about our contacts. How important are they? Do we really need them and is it more important to act carefully now so that the contacts we really want and we really need are still happening?”
Meanwhile, Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, said it is going to be “incredibly difficult” for the NHS to deliver one million coronavirus jabs per day.
Asked about the speed of the booster rollout, she told BBC Breakfast: “Let’s not underestimate how tough it is.
“But on Saturday the NHS did deliver over 500,000 booster jabs in one day so that can be done – building up to a million is going to be incredibly difficult.
“It is prioritisation that really matters.
“So, we have to say ‘This is what we are doing but staff need to be able to focus on that’, so we can’t ask them to do other things.”
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to match the aim of offering boosters to all eligible adults before 2022, but added that more Covid-19 restrictions may still be needed to tackle the new strain.
Welsh leader Mark Drakeford also said “further steps” could be required to keep the country safe.