Rising Covid case rates among over-60s heaps pressure on Boris Johnson to impose tougher restrictions

Boris Johnson is resisting calls by scientists for tougher restrictions on social mixing to be introduced in England next week.

Scientists on the Sage advisory group said data on hospitalisations among older groups caused by mixing on Christmas Day would begin to filter through by the middle of next week when the Prime Minister is expected to review the current Plan B measures.

It comes as health leaders have warned that Mr Johnson may be forced to introduce tougher Covid measures “at pace” in a bid to reduce the number of people being admitted to hospital after the festive period.

But Mr Johnson is reluctant to bring in any new measures despite the rise in cases of the Omicron variant. Downing Street insisted on Friday there was “nothing in the data” that warranted bringing in tougher restrictions, but added that they would have to keep a “really close eye on what is happening in hospitals”.

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When Plan B measures, including mask-wearing in shops, were brought in last month for six weeks despite a rebellion by backbench Tories, it was agreed they would be reassessed at the halfway point.

The Prime Minister and his Cabinet are expected to meet next week to decide if they should be continued or if more stringent rules are needed. The few studies that have been published have suggested that Omicron is milder than Delta and that a much lower proportion of people infected with Omicron will need hospital treatment, or die from the virus.

But so many people are being infected that there are concerns that hospitals will be overwhelmed with Covid patients if tougher social distancing rules are not imposed. There tends to be a lag of a week or more between infection and hospitalisation.

Professor Graham Medley, who leads Sage’s pandemic modelling group, said it was still uncertain whether the apparent lower severity of Omicron would limit hospital admissions among the elderly.

“The evidence of lower severity of Omicron infections compared to Delta largely comes from infections in younger people,” he said. “As the Omicron virus starts to move into older people in the UK, that reduction might not continue.”

While he acknowledged that older populations were more likely to have received the booster jab, he warned: “It is uncertain what the hospitalisation risk is for older people.”

His concerns were echoed by Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Adviser at UKHSA, who said that while evidence of the protection provided by vaccines was “encouraging”, the increased transmissibility of Omicron and the rising cases in the over 60s meant it was “highly likely that there will be significant pressure on the NHS in coming weeks”.

But leading scientists have insisted that the increase in infections in recent days would lead to the threshold being broken in the coming weeks, and the health service overwhelmed.

Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said it only took a “whiff of infected breath” for someone to contract the virus.

Prof Openshaw told BBC Breakfast: “The latest figures show extraordinary rises in infection rates and this is before we’ve had time to see the full effect of what’s happened over Christmas.

“The people currently who are very sadly dying of Covid were probably infected on average about 35 days ago, so this was really before Omicron really started to transmit.

“It’s therefore too early to say what the impact of Omicron is going to be on more severe disease.”

He warned that hospital admissions caused by Covid may rise due to more older people and those not vaccinated getting infected.

“It’s mostly been circulating in children, in people in contact with children, and it’s now going to spread into older adults at much higher risk of severe disease and those with pre-existing illnesses.”

His comments came as Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said that the Prime Minister had set a “high threshold” for additional restrictions, adding the Government “needs to be ready to introduce tighter restrictions at real speed should they be needed”.

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