Boris Johnson has come under fire amid chaos over COVID testing shortages in the run-up to New Year and concerns surrounding rising numbers of people being admitted to hospital.
On Wednesday, the prime minister said people should continue with their plans to celebrate on New Year's Eve, but asked them to mitigate risks by taking precautions – such as tests – before attending events.
"I think everybody should enjoy New Year but in a cautious and sensible way," he said.
"Take a test, ventilation, think about others — but above all, get a booster."
However, Professor Peter Openshaw, from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), expressed concern about the lack of available testing capacity.
“It’s very worrying indeed,” Professor Openshaw told Radio 4’s Today. “We know the situations in which transmission happens and fortunately I don’t think we are facing the sort of lockdown that was necessary in order to cope in the very earliest part of this year.
“But we do know that crowding together in poorly ventilated spaces, particularly if you are shouting over loud music and so on, is absolutely perfect in terms of transmitting this very, very high transmissible virus.”
However, despite the crisis in testing, the prime minister has continued to give New Year's Eve festivities the thumbs up in England – striking a different tone to the devolved administrations.
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged the public to limit celebrations to three households and closed nightclubs, while Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford also closed nightclubs and reintroduced measures like the 'rule of six'. Northern Ireland has also taken similar measures.
On Thursday, the Welsh Government came to the aid of Westminster by loaning England four million lateral flow tests, bringing the total the country has donated to 10 million.
Professor Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said there was mixed messaging from the government on the matter of testing.
“It does seem to be that there’s some mixed messages here because the secretary of state said yesterday that there was a global shortage because demand globally in most countries for testing has gone up massively,” he told Times Radio.
“But we’ve also, as you say, been told by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) that there’s a local logistics problem of delivering to pharmacies and delivering to warehouses that supply the online suppliers of the testing.”
He added: "There’s no point in having that advice if, as GPs, we know were no longer able to help patients to actually act on that advice - and that’s a big issue for us.”
And it is not just lack of testing in the run up to New Year’s Eve that is triggering concern, either.
Palliative care medic Dr Rachel Clarke described rising hospitalisations as “unsustainable”.
Some 1,213 people were recorded as being hospitalised with COVID on Wednesday, with the seven-day average reaching 6,878 - up 13.2% on the previous week.
“England now has >10k people with Covid in hospital - the highest peak since early March,” Clarke wrote on Twitter. “Cases have already risen by 2k in just two days.
“This is unsustainable. Our ability to care for Covid & non-Covid patients is finite.
“So how can you possibly fail to act, @BorisJohnson?”
Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London who is also part of the unofficial Independent SAGE group of COVID experts, struck a similar tone.
“We live in a country where the govt will ask the military to set up field hospitals & plan for mortuary capacity before enacting even the most basic public health measures to prevent this," Gurdsani wrote on Twitter.
“183,000 confirmed cases today - the silence is deafening.”
The UK recorded its highest ever number of COVID cases on Wednesday, reporting 183,037 new cases within a 24-hour period and 57 deaths.
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