U.K. Meets Vaccine Booster Target as Covid-19 Cases Surge
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson used his New Year message to urge holdouts to get Covid-19 vaccine boosters, as growing pressure on the U.K. National Health Service threatens to undermine his strategy to get through the omicron wave.
Close to one-third of eligible adults in England have yet to receive a top-up dose, according to a statement from the government Friday, even as it said it met its target to offer all adults a booster by the end of the year. The U.K.’s other devolved nations make their own health policy.
The prime minister has repeatedly pointed to the vaccine rollout as his rationale for not imposing tougher pandemic restrictions to slow the tide of omicron cases. Johnson said this week about 90% of people hospitalized with Covid have not had a booster shot.
But his plan to keep the economy close to restriction-free is coming under pressure from the sheer number of coronavirus infections fueled by omicron, which while milder, is starting to translate into rising hospital admissions.
“I want to speak directly to all those who have yet to get fully vaccinated,” Johnson said in his New Year address. “The people who think the disease can’t hurt them -- look at the people going into hospital now, that could be you.”
A total of 11,452 people were in the hospital in England with Covid as of Thursday, according to the latest NHS England figures, far short of the peak of more than 34,000 in January. Still, daily admissions are rising, with 2,082 on Dec. 28, according to the latest data, the most since Feb. 3.
The health service is “on a war footing,” Stephen Powis, the NHS’s national medical director, said in a statement Thursday announcing the construction of temporary structures at eight hospitals to care for more patients.
The move, described as precautionary, is reminiscent of the so-called Nightingale hospitals set up during the first Covid wave in 2020 that were later closed because they were little-used.
“We still don’t know if a surge will come,” Chris Hopson, chief executive of the group that represents health trusts in England, told BBC radio on Friday. “The government needs to be ready to introduce tighter restrictions at real speed should they be needed,” he said, adding that any new restrictions would need about two weeks to have an impact on hospital admissions.
The U.K. recorded 189,213 confirmed Covid cases on Thursday, breaking the record for a second day, fueled by the spread of omicron. A further 332 more deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test were also recorded, the highest daily total since March, though NHS England said that includes a “backlog” of fatalities not reported over the holiday period.
The swelling case numbers are piling pressure on the other plank of Johnson’s Covid strategy: encouraging people to use home testing kits to avoid spreading the virus. With demand surging, they have been repeatedly unavailable to order on the NHS website while pharmacies have complained of “inconsistent” supplies.
The government has acknowledged that supplies are coming under pressure, due to growing demand both in the U.K. and around the world. Lack of testing capacity means infections may not be showing up in the official case data.
Under new pandemic rules in England, people can use the tests to end their self-isolation, increasing demand. Businesses are voicing concern about the impact on supply chains due to staff absences, which are also increasingly serious in the health service.
On Thursday, Southern Railway announced it is suspending services to the busy London Victoria station until Jan. 10 because so many employees are isolating due to coronavirus.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.