Early Indications Show Omicron Is More Transmissible Than Delta, With 2,000 A Day Likely Infected
Boris Johnson told his Cabinet that early signs show the Omicron variant is more transmissible thane the Delta version (Alamy)
Boris Johnson has said there are early signs that the Omicron variant is more transmissible than other versions of Covid-19, and scientists believe up to 2,000 people are being infected with it every day.
But the government says it is still waiting for further data on the severity of illness caused by the variant, and results of testing by vaccine manufacturers, before deciding whether to take further action to tackle its spread.
After dismissing the need for further measures beyond the reintroduction of masks and some travel restrictions last week, the prime minister today gave the first indication that more may need to be done to deal with the spread of Omicron. There have been 437 confirmed cases across the UK as of today, including 101 new cases in the last 24 hours.
A readout from this morning's Cabinet meeting confirmed that "early indications were that [Omicron] is more transmissible than Delta”.
But a senior government source said it was still “too early” to say if further measures were needed, and said the government was committed to update Parliament next week before MPs leave for the Christmas recess.
The prime minister's spokesperson said, however, that government could move “relatively swiftly” to reimpose measures such as working from home, or bringing in mandatory Covid certification, if needed.
"We want to make sure that Parliament has its say," they added.
"But we have done the work already on things like certification to ensure we are ready to move if required."
The Scottish government announced on Tuesday afternoon it was asking employers to ensure staff are working from home wherever possible until mid-January.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s Nervtag advisory group on emerging viruses, said ministers in Westminster “really need to be considering Plan B” already, and telling people to start to work from home again.
“If it was half as severe, but you have three times as many cases, that’s still a worse situation. I do have big concerns about this,” he told Times Radio.
“The NHS can cope with a steady stream of cases, it can’t cope with a flood of cases. So it’s all about these cases happening all at once – that’s the danger here.”
He said at the moment, we’re “doing absolutely nothing to encourage reductions in social mixing, which is the main thing that drives spread faster”.
A government source agreed that increased transmissibility alone will potentially have an impact on hospitalisations, but said they still needed the data on how Omicron affected people before making a decision on “plan B”.
Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at Kings College London, said early data suggested cases of the new mutation are doubling every two days, which means the UK is on course to overtake the figures in some of the eleven countries which have been placed on the travel “red list” due to its discovery there.
"The official estimates are about 350-odd Omicron cases, and because the current testing is missing a lot of those, it's probably at least 1,000 to 2,000 I would guess at the moment," he told BBC Breakfast.
"We are expecting this to be doubling about every two days at the moment, so if you do your maths – assume it's 1,000 at the moment, and you think it's going to be doubling every two days, you can see that those numbers are going to be pretty [high] certainly in about 10 days' time."
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said he thought Omicron would overtake Delta as the dominant coronavirus variant in the UK "within a matter of weeks".
"I think we can now say that this variant is spreading faster in the UK than the Delta variant at the same time, and that's something that I think was unclear until very recently," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"It is too soon to assume that fundamentally Omicron is more mild than say Delta.”
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