Omicron will cause nearly 2,500 daily hospitalisations this winter even under Plan B measures, Government scientists claimed today as they warned tougher measures will be needed to deal with the variant.
Modelling by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) suggests the strain could cause anywhere from between 25,000 to 75,000 deaths in England over the next five months and more hospitalisations in January than were seen last year.
The researchers — who also sit on the Spi-M SAGE modelling subgroup that advises No10 — said restrictions similar to stage two of the roadmap out of lockdown, which include a ban on indoor socialising at pubs and restaurants, may be needed to stop the NHS becoming overwhelmed.
They suggested the measures should be brought in as Boxing Day to stem the tide of admissions and deaths and added that upping the booster rollout to the Government’s 500,000 per day target will do little to reduce the toll.
But the data was based on assuming Omicron causes as much severe illness as Delta, which has been called into question after preliminary data from South Africa suggested the strain could be causing less hospitalisation.
It comes after Professor Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, said the variant is spreading so quickly in Britain everyone will come into contact with it ‘unless you’re a hermit’.
Professor Riley warned ‘a lot of people’ could still end up in hospital even if the strain proves to cause milder symptoms than Delta.
Hospitals have already had to start shutting wards after detecting cases, with Raigmore Hospital in Inverness forced to close one of its units after a spike in infections.
Meanwhile, new rules on care homes have ‘almost’ returned residents to the same conditions they were in a year ago, according to care leaders. Michael Gove yesterday announced care home resident will be banned from seeing more than three named visitors this winter in order to protect them from the vaccine-evading variant.
While Covid booster jabs have been shown to be effective against Omicron, there are concerns that the millions of people who are yet to get their third inoculation could be unprotected against symptoms of the virus without it. Officials stress two doses should still offer high protection against severe illness but even a small drop in that could trigger a surge in hopsitalisations.
The variant already makes up 30 per cent of new Covid cases in London, according to confidential data given to ministers.
Stark projections show the super-mutant variant could become dominant within days, prompting concerns that Boris Johnson will have no choice but to hit the panic button once more (Pictured: PM is seen arriving Saturday to a central London hospital after his wife, Carrie Johnson gave birth to a baby girl earlier this week)
Omicron will cause nearly 2,500 hospitalisations this winter even under Plan B measures, Government scientists claimed today as they warned tougher measures — including a ban on indoor socialising at pubs and restaurants — will be needed to deal with the variant. Pictured: Customers enjoy a drink at Southwestern Wetherspoon pub in Clapham on July 19 ‘Freedom Day’
Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London epidemiologist, has warned that the Omicron variant has the potential to ‘very substantially overwhelm the NHS’ and cause up to 10,000 hospitalisations a day if it is as virulent as Delta
The above map shows the ten areas that have the most confirmed and suspected Omicron cases in England, according to the UK Health Security Agency. West Northamptonshire is the country’s hotspot for the mutant strain, although eight in ten areas on the list are in London
Confidential UK Health Security Agency data showed that Omicron may now be behind 8.5 per cent of infections. The figures are based on the proportion of PCR tests failing to detect a specific gene, an early indicator of the variant. PCRs look for three genes to confirm a Covid infection, but with Omicron one is so mutated that they only pick up two of them. The analysis was done by Professor Alastair Grant, a Covid modeller at the University of East Anglia, who has access to the secret statistics
In other developments in the Covid pandemic:
- Post-mortem tests revealed two boys from the same school died within days of one another after they caught Covid;
- Victoria Derbyshire‘s brother has caught Covid at a Christmas meal with friends despite being triple-vaccinated;
- The number of cases of super-mutant Omicron jumped by 54 per cent yesterday and overall daily Covid infections breached levels not seen since the UK’s devastating second wave;
- London has the country’s fastest growing Omicron outbreak with infections up in all of the city’s 32 boroughs;
- Tory whips have been scrambling to persuade MPs to back new coronavirus curbs amid fears Boris Johnson could suffer a rebellion of more than 50 MPs over the measures;
- Nicola Sturgeon warned of an impending ‘tsunami of infections’ if the Omicron variant becomes completely dominant in Scotland within days;
- Number 10 announced that it had cancelled this year’s Christmas party but insisted that the public could still have theirs.
Stark projections show the super-mutant variant could become dominant within days, prompting concerns that Boris Johnson will have no choice but to hit the panic button once more.
It comes as leaked advice from the UKHSA, sent to health secretary Sajid Javid, called for ‘stringent national measures’ to be brought in by December 18.
While No10 said there were no imminent plans for more restrictions when Plan B was announced this week, Mr Gove warned on Friday that the government had been shown ‘very challenging information’ about the speed of Omicron’s spread at a Cobra meeting.
He hinted the Government was considering Plan C, saying: ‘We need to keep everything under review.’
And the LSHTM modelling suggests that even under the most optimistic scenario — low immune escape of Omicron from vaccines and high effectiveness of booster jabs — a wave of infection is projected which could lead to a peak of more than 2,000 daily hospital admissions, with 175,000 hospital admissions and 24,700 deaths between December 1 this year and April 30, 2022.
This is if no additional control measures are implemented over and above the current Plan B introduced by the Government in England.
The team said mask-wearing, working from home and booster jabs may not be enough, and predict a peak of daily hospital admissions of 2,400 in January.
In this scenario, bringing in control measures early in 2022 — such as restrictions on indoor hospitality, the closure of some entertainment venues and restrictions on how many people can gather in one place — would be sufficient to substantially control the wave, reducing hospital admissions by 53,000 and deaths by 7,600.
Dr Rosanna Barnard, from LSHTM’s Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, who co-led the research, said: ‘More data over the next few weeks will strengthen our knowledge on Omicron and the consequences of this on transmission in England.
‘However, these early projections help guide our understanding about potential futures in a rapidly-evolving situation.
‘In our most optimistic scenario, the impact of Omicron in the early part of 2022 would be reduced with mild control measures such as working from home.
Anti Covid pass protestors hold up signs comparing Boris Johnson to Adolph Hitler during a demonstration against the Government’s Plan B rules outside Westminster today
Prrotestors hold signs reading ‘No to exclusion, to checkpoints, to discrimination’ in the demonstration against Covid vaccine passports, which will become mandatory at clubs and large events under Plan B rules next week
Demonstrators hold a banner reading ‘Stop Covid passes, Big Brother watch’ today. Experts fear England is likely to see thousands of hospitalisations per day this winter even with the Plan B restrictions
Pictured: Crowds of shoppers pack onto Northumberland Street in Newcastle this afternoon on the penultimate Saturday shopping day before Christmas
Millions of Britons have effectively no protection against the Omicron Covid variant from their first two jabs, health experts have warned as the public was urged to get their booster jabs to avoid overwhelming the health service this Christmas. Government scientists found that the mostly elderly people who had two doses of AstraZeneca several months ago had almost no protection against Omicron infection, and two Pfizer doses offered little more than 30 per cent.
The above graph shows vaccine effectiveness against mild illness and weeks since vaccination. The analysis showed a Pfizer booster provides between 70 and 75 per cent protection against mild Omicron illness, regardless of which vaccine was originally used, compared to 90 per cent for Delta. Two doses of Pfizer may offer just 37 per cent protection after three-and-a-half months compared to 60 per cent for Delta. Two shots of AstraZeneca offered virtually no protection after the same amount of time. But the scientists caution that data for AstraZeneca was less reliable due to the fact the vaccine was restricted in some age groups and typically used at the very start of the initial vaccine rollout in vulnerable people
Public Health Scotland estimates the new variant will be dominant next week, accounting for more than 50 per cent of all Covid cases, and make almost all new infections by the end of the year
Omicron makes up 13.3 per cent of Covid cases in Scotland and is doubling every two to three days
‘However, our most pessimistic scenario suggests that we may have to endure more stringent restrictions to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed. Mask-wearing, social distancing and booster jabs are vital, but may not be enough.
‘Nobody wants to endure another lockdown but last-resort measures may be required to protect health services if Omicron has a significant level of immune escape or otherwise increased transmissibility compared to Delta.
‘It is crucial for decision-makers to consider the wider societal impact of these measures, not just the epidemiology.’
The most pessimistic scenario looked at by the modellers — high immune escape from vaccines and lower effectiveness of boosters — projects a wave of infection which is likely to lead to a peak in hospital admissions around twice as high as the peak seen in January 2021, if no additional control measures are taken.
This could cause 492,000 hospital admissions and 74,800 deaths, according to the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
In this scenario, the team estimates that stronger measures may be required to keep the peak number of hospital admissions below the January 2021 peak.
The scientists assumed Omicron causes the same severity of illness as Delta but did not look at the impact of measures such as mass population testing to control its spread.
Dr Nick Davies from CMMID, who co-led the new study, said: ‘These are early estimates, but they do suggest that, overall, Omicron is outcompeting Delta rapidly by evading vaccines to a substantial degree.’
He told a briefing ‘the booster programme will substantially mitigate the impact of Omicron in England’.
Dr Davies added that it was difficult to predict the true level of protection offered by two doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer, and urged people to get boosters.
He said the findings of the study were ‘worrying’ but added that ‘lockdowns have a really devastating impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, especially leading up to Christmas’ and those impacts had not been included in the modelling.
He added: ‘It’s the role of decision-makers to weigh up all these different outcomes and decide what is the best policy to pursue. We’re … focusing on the epidemiological side of the control measures.’
The scientists made assumptions about the levels of transmissibility and immune escape of Omicron using ‘S’ gene target failure (SGTF) data from cases in England.
Professor Paul Hunter, professor in medicine, University of East Anglia, said any model is ‘only as good as its assumptions’, adding that one key assumption in this model is that severity of disease outcomes for Omicron is the same as for Delta.
‘Although we will not know for certain for a few weeks indications from South Africa do suggest that Omicron does cause less severe disease than Delta.
‘There is also early as yet not peer reviewed data suggesting that although Omicron mutations are enough to escape antibody, T cell immunity would be less compromised.
‘It is thought that T cell immunity is more important for reducing risk from severe disease than it is for reducing the milder nose and throat infections.
‘If Omicron is indeed associated with less severe disease as is, in my view, likely to be the case then these models would overestimate hospital admissions and deaths, possibly substantially,’ he said.
Professor Hunter said he suspects these models ‘overstate’ risk of hospital admissions and deaths and the ‘worst case’ scenarios are ‘unlikely to be seen’.
He added: ‘As better data becomes available in coming weeks we can expect these models to be refined.’
Meanwhile, Professor Riley this morning told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Omicron is spreading so quickly that, I think, unless you are living the life of a hermit, you are very likely to come across it in the next few weeks.
‘I don’t think anyone should be going around thinking they are not going to catch it, I think that situation has changed.’
She added: ‘There is a huge ‘if’ about this, ‘is it milder?’. I think it is very dangerous to compare data from South Africa, say, to the UK.
‘Even if it is milder and, therefore, a smaller proportion of infected people end up in hospital, given that so many people are going to come across this virus, even a small proportion of a lot of people is a lot of people in hospital.’
Meanwhile, new restrictions on care homes have left sector bosses at a loss as to whether residents will be able to see their families over Christmas.
Nadra Ahmed, of the National Association of Care Providers, said she is hoping to get clarity on several details on the new guidance, including if people can change the nominated three people to visit someone who is in a care home.
She told BBC Breakfast: ‘Families are much bigger than [three people], if you’ve got four siblings, five siblings, you’ve got grandchildren, great grandchildren.
‘It was something that we’ve been having to plan for and, of course, now we’re looking at three nominated people. That kind of disempowers anybody else and for the residents, they may have been looking forward to it.
‘We raise expectations on this quite substantially and, of course, we’re almost back to where we were, just slightly better, but almost back to where we were last year.’
She said clarification on the guidance is something care home providers are expecting to receive by Tuesday, the day before the new restrictions are expected to come into force.
She told BBC Breakfast: ‘Friday night, this was yesterday, it was announced, and then we have to put it into place by Wednesday with a weekend in the middle and providers will have been making all those appointments with people already.
‘We really would like the days when we could have an open house and people came and went as they could, but we can’t do that any more.
‘I think that is an issue for us. We will have very few days to get it into place.’
It comes as Raigmore Hospital in Inverness had to close ward 7a because of a spike in Covid infections. Patients are being clinically assessed and monitored with normal in-patient care continuing.
An NHS spokesman said: ‘There is no evidence of any link between these cases and those in ward 5a, which also remains closed to new admissions and visiting.’
Tests are establishing whether any of the cases are of the Omicron variant and the results are expected next week. Consultant microbiologist Adam Brown said: ‘The fact that we have apparently unrelated instances of Covid-19 in two different wards shows how prevalent the virus is in the community at the moment.
‘It is more important than ever to keep to guidance about distancing, hand-washing and wearing a face covering.’
All appropriate infection prevention and control measures have been put in place and close contacts have been identified and given advice and support.
It comes after health experts warned millions of Britons have effectively no protection against the Omicron variant.
The highly-transmissible mutant strain is likely to make up most cases of Covid in Britain over the next two weeks, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said in a report yesterday, and could reach one million infections by the end of this month.
The above graph shows Covid cases in London. They are starting to tick up as the more transmissible Omicron variant begins to spread in the capital
Government scientists compared 581 cases of Omicron in Britain with 56,000 of Delta to give preliminary estimates of how well vaccines protect against a variant with mutations that help it evade the body’s immune response.
They found that the mostly elderly people who had two doses of AstraZeneca several months ago had almost no protection against Omicron infection, and two Pfizer doses offered little more than 30 per cent.
But a third dose, if using Pfizer, can take protection levels back up to 71 per cent in those who had AstraZeneca the first time around and 76 per cent for those who had Pfizer.
Meanwhile, Wales has said it will remain on alert level 0 despite a warning the country is facing a new wave of infections caused by the Omicron variant.
People were urged to get their booster jabs during a press conference on Friday by First Minister Mark Drakeford, who said it was the best protection against the new variant.
He added: ‘Every single vaccination is a small victory against the virus – so please make getting your vaccine or booster a priority.’
People will be asked to continue wearing face coverings in all public places and take regular lateral flow tests before going out help protect others in the lead-up to Christmas.
Those who test positive are strongly advised to not go out, self-isolate and arrange for a PCR test.
Mr Drakeford said: ‘The emergence of the Omicron variant is another worrying development in this long-running pandemic. We are concerned about the speed it is moving and its potential to infect large numbers of people.
‘We are speeding up the rollout of boosters in response to the new variant. We’re increasing the number of clinics and extending opening hours.’
He added: ‘We are not back at square one.
‘Please do everything you can to protect yourself and your loved ones. Please follow all the advice and all the measures which have kept us safe over the last couple of years. And let’s stay safe and well this Christmas.’
The Welsh Government say more than a million people have already received their booster vaccine. There remains only a handful of Omicon cases in Wales – nine are currently confirmed.
Ministers have said preparations must be made for cases to rise quickly and sharply given there is now widespread community transmission in many parts of England and Scotland.