In his first ever Downing Street press conference, Sajid Javid repeated his warning that Covid-19 cases could reach 100,000 a day as the country enters a challenging winter period.
He said the UK was seeing “greater pressure” on the NHS but the Government will “do what it takes to make sure that this pressure doesn’t become unsustainable, and that we don’t allow the NHS to become overwhelmed.”
Deaths “remain mercifully low” at the moment, he said, but added: “We’ve always known that the winter months would pose the greatest threat to our road to recovery.”
He added: “Thanks to the vaccination programme, the link between hospitalisations and deaths has significantly weakened, but it’s not broken.
“So we must all remember that this virus will be with us for the long term and remains a threat to our loved ones, and a threat to the progress that we’ve made in getting our nation closer to normal life.”
Mr Javid urged people to have their vaccines, including Covid boosters and jabs for flu, and said: “If we all play our part, then we can give ourselves the best possible chance in this race, get through this winter, and enjoy Christmas with our loved ones.”
Latest Government figures show that a further 179 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday.
As of 9am on Wednesday, there had been a further 49,139 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK.
Hospital admissions stand at 868 on average per day over the last seven days, up from 780 a week earlier, a rise of 11%.
Earlier, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents health bodies, warned “we risk stumbling into a winter crisis” unless measures such as face masks and vaccine passports – the Government’s “Plan B” for the coming months – are introduced in England.
He called for ministers to come up with a “Plan C” of even tougher restrictions if those measures are insufficient to address pressure on the health service.
Mr Javid told the Downing Street press conference the Government was concerned about the number of cases, but that vaccines were “clearly working” when it came to hospital admissions and deaths.
Asked about unsustainable pressure on the health service, he said: “We don’t believe that the pressures that are currently faced by the NHS are unsustainable.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are huge pressures especially in A&E, in primary care, for example, as well, but at this point we don’t believe they are unsustainable.
“If we feel at any point it’s becoming unsustainable then the department, together with our friends in the NHS, we won’t hesitate to act.”
Mr Javid reiterated that the Government will not be implementing its Plan B strategy “at this point”.
He added: “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 that can cut the risk of death for the most vulnerable as “great news”, he said: “But we cannot be complacent when Covid-19 remains such a potent threat.”
The Health Secretary said England had reached a “milestone” of four million top-up jabs on Wednesday, adding: “None of us want to go backwards now.
“So we must all play our part in this national mission, and think about what we can do to make a difference.
“That means getting the jab when the time comes, whether it’s for Covid-19 or flu.”
He stressed that, aside from vaccinations, people can take other – now voluntary – measures such as meeting outdoors where possible, ensuring good ventilation, wearing masks in crowded spaces and taking lateral flow tests.
He said: “With winter soon upon us, these little steps make a big difference. And they’re more important now than they have ever been.”
Dr Jenny Harries the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said the UK is going into winter with a “really high level” of cases.
“What we can see is that the cases now are almost as high as they were in July and actually not far off where they were last winter,” she said.
“What we are not seeing is that dip down again at the other side of the peak and that is really important because we are kicking off the winter at a really high level of cases.
“Fortunately that is not currently working through into serious disease and deaths.”
However, she later said the last two days have seen the highest death rates for some time, adding that the number of deaths are “moving in the wrong direction”.