Health secretary Sajid Javid has warned that coronavirus restrictions could return in England in the run-up to Christmas, as UK infections hit almost 50,000 in a single day - their highest since July.
Mr Javid rejected calls from NHS bosses for the government to immediately trigger its Plan B for Covid-19 - involving mandatory masks, vaccine passports for crowded venues like nightclubs and guidance to work from home - insisting that pressures on the health service are not yet “unsustainable”.
But he called for a return to the “Blitz spirit” of the early days of the pandemic, warning Britons that unless they “do their bit” by taking up the offer of vaccines and booster jabs they could lose the freedoms they have enjoyed since the lifting of lockdown in July.
And he took a swipe at Conservative MPs who fail to wear masks in the House of Commons chamber, saying that they should be setting an example to everyone by following the guidance that face-coverings should still be worn in crowded and unventilated places, especially when meeting with people you do not normally mix with.
Warning that daily infections could rise to 100,000 or more, Mr Javid said: “Am I saying that if we don’t do our bit… that we are more likely to face restrictions as we head into winter? I am saying that.
“We’ve been really clear that we all have a role to play. If not enough people get that booster jab, if not enough people who are eligible for that original offer of a vaccine don’t come forward, if people don’t wear masks when they really should… it’s going to hit us.”
As the government struggles to boost uptake of booster doses which have been available to the oldest and most vulnerable Britons since mid-September, Mr Javid announced that for the first time people can request appointments for a jab rather than wait to be invited.
He also announced that thousands of vulnerable patients could be taking ground-breaking antiviral drugs to ease the symptoms of Covid-19 this winter, after the government announced deals to secure two new treatments.
But he was accused of complacency by his Labour shadow Jonathan Ashworth, who said: “The so-called wall of defence against Covid is crumbling and today we needed a plan to rebuild it.”
The chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, Jenny Harries, warned that evidence showed the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines waning after five months, making a booster essential for elderly individuals who may have received their first inoculation as long ago as December last year.
And she cautioned that, while the vaccines show 80 per cent or more effectiveness in preventing serious illness and hospitalisation, they do not stop contagion, meaning that even double-dosed people should keep using face-coverings to avoid infecting others.
In an indication of official concern that the upsurge in Covid cases is being fuelled by the public relaxing its guard and returning to normal life, she warned that - with the R rate of reproduction of the virus still hovering around the crucial level of one - “quite small behavioural differences” can make a different between the pandemic declining or spreading.
Official figures showed 49,139 new Covid cases recorded on Tuesday, with 869 hospitalisations and 179 deaths. The total of 954 deaths over the past seven days was up 21 per cent on the previous week, while the seven-day total of 6,074 hospital admissions was up 11 per cent.
Dr Harries said it was “worrying” to see infection rates almost as high as last winter, when the second wave of Covid hit the UK.
Mr Javid called on the public to maintain voluntary preventative measures in the coming weeks to give Britain the chance of a Christmas without restrictions.
“With winter soon upon us, these little steps make a big difference. and they’re more important now than they have ever been,” said the health secretary.
“If we all play our part, then we can give ourselves the best possible chance in this race to get through this winter, and enjoy Christmas with our loved ones.”
He made clear that to avoid future restrictions, it was essential for as many people as possible to take up the offer of boosters and for the 5m adults who have not yet received any vaccine to do so. So far only around 4m booster jabs have been administered.
Mr Javid was speaking at the first coronavirus press conference at Downing Street for five weeks, just hours after the chief executive of the NHS Confederation called on the government to bring back restrictions to avoid “stumbling into a crisis” this winter.
Matthew Taylor told the BBC Today programme: “What we’re facing here is a perfect storm. Winter is always very tight for the NHS for a number of reasons, you add in then the number of Covid patients in hospital and that number seems now to be rising.
“Mask wearing in crowded places, avoiding unnecessary indoor gatherings, I think working from home if you can.
“I don’t underestimate that these are inconveniences but we have to make a choice if we can see what is almost inevitable down the line.”
But Mr Javid said that conditions in the NHS had not yet reached the threshold set down by prime minister Boris Johnson last month for activating his Plan B.
“We don’t believe the pressures currently facing the NHS are unsustainable... at this point,” he said.
But he added: “If we feel at any point the pressures are becoming unsustainable, we won’t hesitate to act.”
A member of the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation, Adam Finn, said that if the public give up wearing masks and taking precautions in crowded places, “we will be back to the bad old days of being asked to stay at home”.
“It feels like everyone has gone back to normal habits,” he said. “These vaccines are extremely good at stopping you ending up in hospital but their ability to stop you getting the infection at all or passing it on are modest.
“It by no means solves the problem. If we want to see the figures go down we need to do more than that. It really is time people realise we can’t just go back to normal.”