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Daily coronavirus cases could rise as high as 100,000 a day this winter, the health secretary has warned - but said the government has no plans to bring back tight restrictions.
However, if people don’t play their part by getting jabs, wearing masks and handwashing, new restrictions - plan B - are more likely, Sajid Javid admitted.
In the race between the vaccine and the virus, the gap was narrowing, Mr Javid said, revealing that a quarter of cases were identified by lateral flow tests, but with winter ahead, “we can’t blow it now”.
Warning that the pandemic was not over, the minister said the colder weather of winter created perfect conditions for Covid-19 to spread.
On average 868 people have been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 each day over the past week, up from 780 a week earlier, a rise of 11 per cent.
Outlining plans to strengthen the government’s vaccination programme, Mr Javid said jabs had prevented millions of infections, but warned: “We could lose that progress if people don’t take up those offers.”
Getting vaccinations was vital so that everyone could “get through this winter and enjoy Christmas with our loved ones”.
Jenny Harries, chief executive of the new UK Health Security Agency, said: “We are kicking off the winter at a really very high level of cases,” adding that deaths were “moving in the wrong direction”.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will decide whether children would start being given vaccines, she said.
“We feel it’s the right decision to learn to live with this virus,” Mr Javid said, when asked whether face coverings should be compulsory.
If ministers need to take further measures, it would include making face masks mandatory - under plan B, he added.
The government did not believe pressure on the NHS was unsustainable “at this point”, Mr Javid told reporters. “If at any point we find the pressures are unsustainable we won’t hesitate to act.”
He said: “We’ll be staying vigilant, preparing for all eventualities while strengthening our vital defences that can help us fight back against this virus.”
Praising deals for new two antiviral treatments as “great news”, he added: “But we cannot be complacent when Covid-19 remains such a potent threat.”
The government will not be implementing its plan B strategy “at this point”, Mr Javid confirmed.
Prof Stephen Powis, national medical director for England, asked the public to help relieve pressure on the NHS by wearing face masks in places with no or low ventilation, such as the Tube or enclosed space.
On waning immunity, Prof Powis said vaccines were still “incredibly effective” but acknowledged that immunity from jabs does wane, so booster doses were important.
Mr Javid said the flu vaccination programme was more important than ever this year, and the government had bought hundreds of thousands of doses of the antiviral drugs, which could be used if there was a Covid outbreak in a care home, for example he said, although the regulator still has to approve their use.