Claims that Omicron will ‘spread pretty rapidly’ and cause fresh curbs as cases rise to 246 in just 24 hours and NHS on the cusp of being put into a ‘very, very difficult position’
As Christmas shoppers crowd into city centres and the party season gets into full swing, scientists warn the price of festive fun may be restrictions in the New Year.
The worrying Omicron variant is “spreading pretty rapidly” in the UK, a government adviser has warned, and doctors’ leaders fear that the NHS will be in a “very, very difficult position” if it triggers a rise in hospital admissions.
Cambridge University statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter yesterday rang alarm bells about the potential impact of Christmas socialising. He told Sky News: “Just like last year with the Alpha variant, this is a terrible time for a variant to come along.
“The next two weeks are probably some of the highest-risk periods, with a lot of indoor socialising that we know is extremely high risk.
“It’s appalling timing. I’m sure the Government would love not to disrupt Christmas… what happens after Christmas, of course, is another matter.
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“The New Year is quite likely to bring a lot of challenges and, as SAGE have said, that could very well mean more stringent measures.”
But despite the warnings, upbeat Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said: “I think it’s going to be a great Christmas.
“All the family, friends, loved ones being able to get together in a way we haven’t been able to do for a couple of years is really important.”
Mr Raab, who is also Justice Secretary, revealed that the Ministry of Justice would be having “appropriate drinks at a smaller scale”.
He said: “The rules are very clear – people can go in and have Christmas parties.” But he urged employers to use common sense.
He said: “The Government wants people to be able to enjoy Christmas this year. People should feel free to go and enjoy those celebrations.”
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Labour leader Keir Starmer urged the unvaccinated to do their bit and get jabbed. Mr Starmer, who gets his booster today, said: “It is frustrating and worrying that medics are seeing too many hospital beds and NHS resources taken by those that have chosen not to get the vaccine.”
By yesterday, 35.2% of over-12s had been given their booster vaccination, with 448,975 jabs carried out in the previous 24 hours. But another 86 Omicron cases had been found, the total soaring to 246 in 24 hours.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, who is a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling said: “The Omicron variant is highly transmissible. It appears to be spreading very rapidly in South Africa and the early signs are that it is spreading pretty rapidly in the UK too.
“If those trends continue then over the coming weeks and months Omicron could even come to replace Delta entirely right around the world.”
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Figures last night showed 43,992 new UK Covid cases, and 54 deaths. The latest data, to July, has revealed that between 20% and 30% of critical care beds in England were occupied by Covid patients, three-quarters of whom were unvaccinated.
NHS England said last week that between July and November, nine in 10 patients receiving the most specialist care had not been vaccinated.
British Association of Critical Care Nurses chairwoman Nicki Credland said: “All nurses understand that they have to provide non-judgmental care.
“But what we find difficult is that giving care to patients who have chosen not to be vaccinated has a knock-on effect on other patients.
“We are still human beings and we still get angry at things.”
The President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine predicted that the NHS would struggle if Omicron triggered a surge in admissions.
Dr Katherine Henderson said: “It is pretty spectacularly bad now – it will get worse. If the variant translates into admissions, we are going to be in a very, very difficult position.”
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England’s Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza feared for schools in the New Year. She urged PM Boris Johnson to keep them open, saying that children “took a huge hit for us” in lockdowns. She added: “They want things back to normal.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid is set to announce a national trial of the first at-home Covid pill, Lagevrio, to vulnerable patients, it was reported yesterday.
And Sir Jeremy Farrar, who quit as a government scientific adviser last month, said progress in combating Covid is “being squandered” because rich countries are not sending enough jabs to poorer nations.
Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, warned Covid will not be the last virus to threaten lives.
She said: “The next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”