Ministers have said there is “nothing” in the data to support further Covid-19 restrictions as scientists suggested that infections may peak before new measures could have an impact.
A senior cabinet minister said that the public had already made “significant” changes to their behaviour to protect themselves, while a health minister said that any further restrictions would be “the absolute last resort”.
Steve Barclay, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is part of the core team of senior ministers assessing the daily data on infections, hospital admissions and deaths, said that ministers “don’t think the data supports” new curbs “at this stage”.
He said that the “plan B” measures introduced last month, under which people were urged to work from home and facemasks were made compulsory in many places indoors, had already resulted in “significant behaviour change”.
The bullish message was reinforced by Edward Argar, a minister at the Department of Health and Social Care, who said he was “seeing nothing at the moment in the data in front of me, in the immediate situation, that suggests a need for further restrictions”.
NHS services are struggling with staff absence rates as high as one in ten, with reports of long ambulance response times, cancelled operations and crowded A&E departments.
Argar told Times Radio: “We need cool, calm heads. We need to look at the data and we need to do everything possible to avoid any restrictions. Restrictions or curbs must be the absolute last resort.” He added that Boris Johnson now believes “we’ve got to learn to live with this virus”.
Ministers will review the plan B measures and travel testing requirements this week. While the plan B restrictions are almost certain to stay in force, the requirement for people to take a pre-departure test before they arrive in England is likely to be dropped it is understood.
Since early last month travellers have had to take a test in the two days before their arrival, but senior figures believe this measure is effectively redundant. “Pre-departure tests were brought in to try to slow the spread of Omicron and stop it coming into the UK,” a source said. “Now that Omicron is dominant in the UK and everywhere it reduces the argument for having it. We have other ways of slowing the spread through domestic testing.”
The requirement that people take a PCR test within two days of arriving in England is set to remain.
Patchier reporting and incomplete data over the two bank holiday weekends means that caution must be taken when calculating trends. However, the government dashboard shows that cases are 43 per cent higher than last week, and deaths 50 per cent higher.
NHS England data shows that 13,151 hospital beds were occupied by Covid patients on Sunday, up from 12,615 a day earlier and almost double the 7,536 a week earlier.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health service trusts, said the government should be ready to bring in tighter restrictions “at real pace” if the data showed they were needed.
He said, though, that “the pattern for hospital admissions over the next fortnight has already been set” and that NHS services were “coming under real pressure”.
Ministers have been encouraged by data from South Africa, where some restrictions have been lifted after almost two years as the Omicron wave recedes there.
Dr Michelle Groome, of the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said: “I think we have been a little bit more confident that things will settle.”
Hopes have also been lifted by half a dozen studies which have suggested that Omicron does less damage to the lungs than previous variants, meaning it may cause less severe disease.
Professor Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute, said that new restrictions would “definitely have no effect on the peak of infections”, which Sage models suggest could be reached this week.