Experts warned more restrictions may be needed to combat the strain – and that advice to work from home, which Boris Johnson has stopped short of introducing, “remains highly relevant” to reduce transmission
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Government advice to work from home could return, following emergency warnings from SAGE on how to fight the Omicron Covid-19 variant.
Science experts warned more restrictions may be needed to combat the strain – and that advice to work from home, which Boris Johnson has stopped short of introducing, “remains highly relevant” to reduce transmission.
The Prime Minister is planning to review England’s new face mask and travel testing laws by December 20 – once experts have a better idea if the strain evades vaccines.
That has prompted fears he could extend or increase restrictions a few days before Christmas.
But at a meeting on Monday, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said it was possible the situation won’t even wait that long.
They agreed: “Even if measures are introduced immediately, there may not be time to fully ascertain whether they are sufficient before decisions are needed on further action.”
They went on: “The situation could develop quickly over the coming weeks.
“Decision-makers may need to act while there is still a high level of uncertainty, including considering the potential need for stringent response measures.”
The dramatic recommendation is contained within a SAGE paper published on Friday, that was leaked to the BBC on Wednesday.
The BBC published several other portions of its contents two days ago, including a warning that the variant could need “very stringent response measures” if it threatens the NHS.
The notes say it is “highly likely” that the multiple-mutated strain can resist vaccine immunity “to some extent”, like the Delta variant does.
“It is highly likely that Omicron can escape immunity to some extent, but it is not yet clear how much,” they say.
The notes add: “Any significant reduction in protection against infection could still result in a very large wave of infections.
“This would in turn lead to a potentially high number of hospitalisations even with protection against severe disease being less affected.”
It comes after Boris Johnson insisted a Christmas lockdown was “extremely unlikely”.
The notes add: “It is important to be prepared for a potentially very significant wave of infections with associated hospitalisations now, ahead of data being available.
“The size of this wave remains highly uncertain but may be of a scale that requires very stringent response measures to avoid unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
“If vaccine efficacy is substantially reduced, then a wave of severe disease should be expected.”
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The SAGE advisors went further than Boris Johnson in their recommendations for measures to fight the variant.
They said a single Day 2 PCR test for UK arrivals – which the PM has introduced – will “identify significantly fewer cases” than two PCR tests, as recommended by the Scottish and Welsh governments.
They also sad pre-departure tests for inbound travellers – which the government has not introduced despite Labour ’s urging – “are valuable in identifying potentially infectious people before they board”.
SAGE also warned lateral flow tests will be “ particularly important over the upcoming holiday period” for people attending parties, even suggesting they could be taken daily.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said people should “maybe” take a lateral flow test before going to parties.
The experts said: “ Colder weather is likely to affect natural ventilation levels, as windows are less likely to be opened. There are some very preliminary indications that Omicron might show more airborne transmission (low confidence).”
When the SAGE paper first emerged on Wednesday, a government spokesman said: “As soon as we became aware of the Omicron variant we took rapid action to protect public health – including expanding the red list, introducing PCR testing for travellers, changing the rules on self-isolation for close contacts and mandating face coverings in shops and on public transport.
“On top of this we are speeding up our vaccination programme by offering all adults in England a booster jab by the end of January, halving the gap between second doses and boosters, and offering second jabs to 12-15 year olds, following advice from the JCVI.”