Many in England do appear to be acting cautiously. The numbers of shoppers and diners in London’s West End on December 26 – historically one of the busiest shopping days of the year – were down week on week, and only just above half their pre-pandemic levels.
Javid did not rule out tougher restrictions after January 1: “When we get into the new year, of course we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures.”
He said that the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus now accounted for around 90 per cent of cases across England.
The government’s attention is focused on the number of patients being hospitalised with Omicron after early data last week suggested the variant carried a lower risk of admission.
The latest data showed the number of patients in hospital in England with COVID-19 was its highest since March, at 8,474, but a long way off peaks above 34,000 in January this year.
A combination of factors, including Britain’s vaccination programme, the lag between infections and hospitalisations and the potentially less harmful effects of the Omicron variant have all been put forward by health experts as possible explanations for lower hospitalisation numbers.
Nevertheless, Britain has reported a total of 148,003 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID test, and 12.2 million positive tests during the pandemic so far.
Johnson met with his top scientific and medical advisers on Monday to discuss the latest data.
With Britain’s state-funded healthcare system already stretched, any sign the number of admissions threatens to overwhelm hospitals could lead to the reintroduction of rules limiting people’s freedom to socialise.
“We will watch carefully what is happening in the hospitals,” Javid said. “Should, in the future, we need to act, of course we won’t hesitate to do so.”
Hospitals in Britain have warned that staff absences due to COVID could risk patient safety. Many industries and transport networks are also struggling with worker shortages.