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Omicron wave could put as much pressure on hospitals as last winter even if it IS mild

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Britain’s Covid outbreak grew today as the super-mutant Omicron variant continued to spread and top scientists warned it could trigger a wave of hospital admissions bigger than the second peak last winter.

The Department of Health recorded 51,459 new cases in the last 24 hours which was a fifth more than last Monday and the third time in a week that they have breached the 50,000 mark. Another 41 deaths were also registered in a 17 per cent increase compared to a week ago. 

Another 290,165 booster jabs were rolled out across the country on Sunday, significantly short of No10’s 500,000-a-day target it set last week to shield against the incoming Omicron wave.

Meanwhile, 90 more cases of the variant were confirmed in England and Scotland today, bringing the UK total to 336 and rising by almost a third in a day. 

But experts warn the true number of cases of the highly-virulent strain will be over 1,000 because not all positive samples are sequenced. Health Secretary Sajid Javid today confirmed there was now ‘community transmission across multiple regions of England’ of Omicron.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, said he expected it to become the dominant variant ‘probably within the next weeks or a month’, based on how rapidly it is outpacing Delta in the South African epicentre. 

He claimed while that timeline means there is little need for more curbs at Christmas, it does not rule out more restrictions being needed at some point in the New Year. 

But Boris Johnson today refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs over the festive period, merely insisting that Christmas will be ‘better’ than last year. He is due to review the current measures in two weeks’ time. Mr Johnson said on a trip to Merseyside: ‘We’re still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is, what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalisations.’ 

Laws requiring masks in shops and on public transport are set to stay in place in Britain until the New Year, as ministers try to fend off demands for tougher restrictions in the run up to Christmas.

Real-world data suggests the highly-evolved variant is three-and-a-half times more likely to infect people than Delta because of its combination of vaccine resistance, increased infectiousness and antibody escape. 

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, said it was ‘entirely possible’ that Omicron could trigger a wave of hospital admissions on par with the peak in January 2021 — even if it is milder than Delta.

He told MailOnline: ‘It’s not uncommon for a more transmissible but less disease-causing pathogen to cause a bigger problem than a virus that is less lethal. If it infects a very large number but only hospitalises a small percentage, we could still end up with an awful lot of people in hospital.’    

There has been a meteoric rise in infections in South Africa in the fortnight since it alerted the world to Omicron’s existence on November 24. There were 11,125 cases yesterday, marking a fivefold rise in a week. In total, there are 46,000 Covid infections on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests Omicron is already behind around one in 60 of them. 

Doctors in South Africa have insisted that most patients suffer only mild illness, with the US’ top Covid expert Dr Anthony Fauci claiming today it ‘doesn’t look like there’s a great degree of severity to it’. 

But British scientists, including the Government’s own, have warned against the narrative that it is a weaker strain, warning that it could put significant pressure on the NHS by virtue of the fact it can infect more people. One mathematical modeller predicted there could be up to 3,000 hospital admissions per day in the UK in January if Omicron takes off domestically — compared to the 4,000 per day at the peak last year. 

Dr Clarke warned that scientists risked ‘whitewashing’ the dangers of Omicron and giving people ‘a false sense of security’ by peddling claims it is just a mild illness. He said Britons might not come for their booster or temper their behaviour if they are told the strain is only mild, a claim which he questions. 

In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent

In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent

There have been only 336 official Omicron cases confirmed in the UK so far, but there are likely more than a thousand already, according to Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia

There have been only 336 official Omicron cases confirmed in the UK so far, but there are likely more than a thousand already, according to Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia

Total Covid cases are rising fastest in London and the South East of England with most of the Omicron infections linked to travellers flying back into the UK

Total Covid cases are rising fastest in London and the South East of England with most of the Omicron infections linked to travellers flying back into the UK

South African scientists have maintained that Omicron is causing only mild illness and have accused the UK of overreacting by shutting its borders to travellers from swathes of the continent. But Boris Johnson today denied the allegations. Visiting police in Merseyside, the Prime Minister told reporters: 'No, I think what we're doing is responding to the pandemic'

South African scientists have maintained that Omicron is causing only mild illness and have accused the UK of overreacting by shutting its borders to travellers from swathes of the continent. But Boris Johnson today denied the allegations. Visiting police in Merseyside, the Prime Minister told reporters: ‘No, I think what we’re doing is responding to the pandemic’

This is the image that has sparked fear among scientists, prompted ministers to turbocharge the UK's booster vaccine rollout and seen the return of mask mandates in England. It details the new super-mutant Omicron variant's 32 spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet. The graphic, released by the country's top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike

This is the image that has sparked fear among scientists, prompted ministers to turbocharge the UK’s booster vaccine rollout and seen the return of mask mandates in England. It details the new super-mutant Omicron variant’s 32 spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet. The graphic, released by the country’s top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, 59, receiving his Covid booster vaccination at a pharmacy in London this morning

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, 59, receiving his Covid booster vaccination at a pharmacy in London this morning

In another day of coronavirus chaos: 

  • Boris Johnson today refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs at Christmas, merely insisting the festive season will be ‘better’ than last year;
  • One of the Covid vaccine inventors warned another pandemic could be ‘more contagious’ and ‘more lethal’;
  • Restrictions which have seen Nigeria added to the UK’s red list today have been branded ‘travel apartheid’;
  • South Africa’s Covid cases almost triple in a week as hospital admissions double in same timeframe;
  • A legal challenge which argues hotel quarantine is a ‘fundamental breach of human rights’ has been mounted;
  • GPs who gave first and second jabs to the housebound are dropping out as they do not have the time or staff;
  • Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for a ‘renewed national effort’ to step up delivery of the booster jab.

Downing Street confirms it IS planning its own Christmas party 

Downing Street has confirmed it is intending to hold its own Christmas party later this month after Boris Johnson this morning refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs over the festive period.  

The Prime Minister dodged when he was asked if he was certain the alarming spread of the Omicron variant would not require harsher restrictions, as he just insisted this Christmas will be ‘better’ than last year.

 ‘This Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas,’ he said during a visit to Merseyside. 

The tighter rules on masks and self-isolation are due to be reviewed by December 18 – meaning that people might not know until a week before Christmas Day what limits they face. 

Despite the uncertainty, Number 10 said at lunchtime that it is planning a Christmas party for staff, with the PM’s Official Spokesman telling reporters: ‘We haven’t confirmed any dates at the moment. I think there is an intention to have a Christmas party this year.’

Whitehall sources have suggested there is little prospect of the current restrictions being loosened before the New Year, as scientists try to establish the scale of the threat posed by the variant.   

There are warnings today that the incoming Omicron wave could be as bad or worse for the NHS than the second coronavirus peak last winter even if the super-mutant variant is weaker than its predecessors.

Real-world data suggests the highly-evolved variant is three-and-a-half times more likely to infect people than Delta because of its combination of vaccine resistance, increased infectiousness and antibody escape.

There have been only 246 official Omicron cases confirmed in the UK so far, but there are likely more than a thousand already, according to Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia.

Professor Hunter said he expected it to become the dominant variant ‘probably within the next weeks or a month’, based on how rapidly it is outpacing Delta in the South African epicentre.  

Admissions in South Africa’s Gauteng province — ground zero of the fresh outbreak — have risen 230 per cent in the fortnight since its discovery, with 2,100 patients admitted last week, raising more doubts about the claim it’s milder. 

But one study in Tshwane, in Gauteng, suggests that only a quarter of those admissions are primarily for Covid, with the rest known as ‘incidental cases’ in which the patient came to hospital for a different illness. Only around a quarter of South Africans are vaccinated so it’s unclear how this will translate in the UK, where more than 70 per cent are fully immunised.  

Scientists won’t know the full scale of Omicron’s infectiousness, vaccine evasiveness or lethality for another two weeks, when they can isolate the virus in a lab, study its biology and test it against vaccines. 

UK Government scientists’ best estimate is that current vaccines will be made 40 per cent less effective against infection from the new strain, but they still expect the jabs to hold up against severe illness and death. 

The Government cannot ‘say for certain’ whether Omicron will escape Covid vaccines, or how severe a disease it will cause, Mr Javid told MPs today.

He said: ‘We are learning more about this new variant all the time.

‘Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant than for the Delta variant, but we don’t yet have a complete picture of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or indeed how it interacts with the vaccines.

‘We can’t say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.

‘We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves times and to strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against Covid.’

James Ward, a mathematical modeller from Surrey, said there could be up to 20,000 Omicron hospital admissions in a single week in January, based on assumptions about how fast it’s spreading in South African and presuming it’s more mild than Delta. 

Professor Paul Hunter, from the school of medicine at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Breakfast: ‘How it’s likely to spread in the UK still uncertain, but I think the early signs are that it will probably spread quite quickly and probably start outcompeting Delta and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least.

‘The big remaining question is actually how harmful it is if you do get Covid with this Omicron variant, and that’s the question that we’re struggling to answer at the moment.’

He said travel restrictions would have a minor impact, adding that ‘one of the problems with travel restrictions like this is that it then de-motivates other countries to actually be open about their own situations for fear of what they would see as economic sanctions. So I think once the infection is spreading within a country, then border restrictions don’t really add anything.

‘We’ve known that long before Covid. This has been knowledge that we’ve had for decades, if not centuries, to be honest.’

In a promising sign, Professor Hunter said that Christmas should still be able to go ahead without further domestic restrictions. 

He said: ‘Often respiratory viruses like Covid spread less rapidly through society while we’re on our Christmas break than they do at other times… So personally, I don’t think the primary focus of the Christmas break where you meet with your family on Christmas Day, Boxing Day is under threat.

‘Clearly if you’re a vulnerable person, and if you’ve not been vaccinated or you’ve not had your booster then think twice about maybe going to the office party, that sort of thing, but in terms of the Christmas Day and surrounding days, I don’t think that is really under threat.’ 

South African scientists have maintained that Omicron is causing only mild illness and have accused the UK of overreacting by shutting its borders to travellers from swathes of the continent.

 

Figures from the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases showed infections are rocketing in Gauteng province at the epicentre of the outbreak. They are also surging in the country’s eight other provinces

Nearly 80% of City of London workers were back at their desks last week despite rising Omicron cases 

 City of London workers have flocked back to the ‘Square Mile’ despite rising cases of the Covid super-variant Omicron.

More staff were at their desks last week than at any point during the pandemic as the festive party season kicked off.

It comes as traffic data for the capital showed rush hour traffic last week had rocketed above average pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile mobility figures showed more people were walking or driving around the city than at any point this year.

The City of London, which employs 540,000 people. appeared to be back in the swing of things as almost 80 per cent of workers were at their desks last week.

More staff flocked back to the district on Tuesday and Thursday than at any point since Covid struck in March 2020, according to Google data seen by Bloomsburg.

This is despite the surging Omicron variant of coroanvirus, with 246 official cases in the UK so far.

Christmas parties may have been the cause as bars and restaurants were packed with punters last week.

But many are now scrapping plans amid fears of the new strain, which the government is monitoring cautiously.

But Boris Johnson today denied the allegations. Visiting police in Merseyside, the Prime Minister told reporters: ‘No, I think what we’re doing is responding to the pandemic.

‘We were the first country in the world to take decisive measures to tackle Omicron. We put about 10 countries automatically, immediately, on to the red list and we said that anybody coming from any country in the world would have to quarantine for a couple of days.

‘We’re now going further and toughening those measures up as we see the spread of Omicron around the world.

‘I don’t think we need to change the overall guidance and advice we’re giving about Omicron in this country. We’re still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is, what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalisations.’ 

He also refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs at Christmas, merely insisting the festive season will be ‘better’ than last year. 

The PM dodged when he was asked if he was certain the alarming spread of the Omicron variant would not require harsher restrictions.

‘This Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas,’ he said. The tighter rules on masks and isolation are due to be reviewed by December 18 – meaning that people might not know until a week before Christmas Day what limits they face. 

Whitehall sources have suggested there is little prospect of the restrictions being loosened before the New Year, as scientists try to establish the scale of the threat.   

By contrast, the US is considering lifting its South Africa travel ban after Dr Fauci said early indications from South Africa suggest that the Omicron variant may not be as severe as previously feared.

‘Thus far – though it’s too early to really make any definitive statements about it – it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it, but we’ve really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to delta,’ he said.

Nigeria accuses UK of ‘travel apartheid’ by putting it on the red list of banned countries 

Boris Johnson today warned that it is still not clear how ‘dangerous’ Omicron is as ministers dismissed accusations of ‘travel apartheid’ over the UK’s ban on arrivals from African countries.

The PM defended the government’s response to the emergence of the variant, saying the restrictions on states where it had been detected was ‘decisive’.

And he rejected the idea that the move to impose pre-departure tests on those coming to Britain was ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’.

The comments came after Nigeria’s high commissioner to London backed the UN Secretary General’s view that measures imposed by nations against large parts of Africa amounted to ‘travel apartheid’.

The country was added to the list after the government said 21 cases of Omicron in the UK had been linked to the country.

But in a round of interviews, policing minister Kit Malthouse said that was ‘very unfortunate language’ and the government is only trying to ‘buy time’ to assess the variant.

After US health chiefs have said they are re-evaluating the ban amid initial signs the strain might be less severe than Delta, Mr Malthouse insisted ministers will be ‘informed by what comes out around the world’.

On a trip to Merseyside this morning, Mr Johnson was asked whether the government had acted too late in demanding travellers to the UK take pre-departure tests.

‘No, I think what we’re doing is responding to the pandemic,’ he said.

‘We were the first country in the world to take decisive measures to tackle Omicron. We put about 10 countries automatically, immediately, on to the red list and we said that anybody coming from any country in the world would have to quarantine for a couple of days.

‘We’re now going further and toughening those measures up as we see the spread of Omicron around the world.

‘But thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity. But again we’ve got to hold judgement until we get more experienced.’ 

Dr Fauci said pm Sunday that the restrictions were made during a time when an explosion of Omicron cases were rocking South Africa as the severity of the variant remained unknown.

He said US officials are now reevaluating the restrictions.

‘When the ban was put on, it was put to give us time to figure out just what is going on,’ Fauci told CNN’s Jack Tapper during Sunday morning’s episode of State of the Nation.

‘Now as you mentioned, as we are getting more and more information about cases in our own country and worldwide, we’re looking at that very carefully on a daily basis.’

It comes as laws requiring masks in shops and on public transport are set to stay until the New Year, as ministers try to fend off demands for tougher restrictions in the run up to Christmas.

Emergency regulations last week reintroduced mandatory masks until December 21 to help slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

A final decision on whether to extend their use may not be taken until as late as December 18.

But Whitehall sources said it was likely masks would stay mandatory for at least another three weeks to give scientists more time to assess the threat posed by Omicron.

Other restrictions, such as travel tests and compulsory ten-day quarantine for those in close contact with an Omicron case, are also set to be extended.

However, sources said Boris Johnson is resisting pressure to move to the Government’s Plan B until at least the New Year.

The contingency plan would involve the use of vaccine passports and ordering millions to work from home. 

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab yesterday urged people to press ahead with their plans for the festive season, saying it was ‘going to be a great Christmas’. 

A Whitehall source said: ‘In terms of Plan B, we are not there yet. The ambition is that people can have a much more normal Christmas than last year.

‘That depends on what the data shows about the new variant. But certainly the hope is that things stay as they are in the next couple of weeks.’ 

Mr Raab urged people to get their booster jabs, saying it was the most important measure in heading off further restrictions.

But he said ministers did not want to follow Germany in making vaccinations mandatory. 

The above map shows the percentage change in Covid cases across South Africa today compared to the same time last week. It shows that in eight of the nine provinces infections rocketed by more than 300 per cent week-on-week. The sharpest rise was recorded in Eastern Cape where infections surged 1,068 per cent

The above map shows the percentage change in Covid cases across South Africa today compared to the same time last week. It shows that in eight of the nine provinces infections rocketed by more than 300 per cent week-on-week. The sharpest rise was recorded in Eastern Cape where infections surged 1,068 per cent

Next pandemic could be MORE LETHAL than Covid warns vaccine inventor Dame Sarah Gilbert 

Another pandemic could be more contagious and more lethal than Covid, one of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine inventors has warned.

Dame Sarah Gilbert claimed the advances made in research against fighting deadly viruses ‘must not be lost’.

Delivering the 44th Richard Dimbleby lecture, scheduled to be shown on the BBC on Monday night, she said: ‘This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. 

‘The next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.

‘The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.’ 

Dame Sarah is credited with saving millions of lives through her role in developing the vaccine. 

It comes as Britain’s Omicron wave grew by more than 50 per cent in a day and overall cases rose by 16 per cent in a week to 43,992 on Sunday.

The number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid also rose by 5.8 per cent from 51 last week.  

And he ruled out restricting medical treatment for the unvaccinated, despite warnings from the medical profession that their needs are crowding out other vital care. 

Nicki Credland, chairman of the British Association of Critical Care Nurses, told The Sunday Times: ‘All nurses understand they have to provide non-judgmental care.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 travel testing rip-off has returned after firms on the Government’s approved list of providers listed cheap PCR tests for pennies – before customers clicked through and found the real price was 200 times higher.

The ‘cowboys’ would list a fake low cost to appear top of search results when sorted by price, but when clicking on the link consumers would find this test was unavailable and the next cheapest one was closer to an average price.

In one case as company was advertising a test for just 30p on the Government website in an apparent attempt to lure in travellers, but this was in fact unavailable on the provider’s website with the next cheapest at £59.

The Department of Health and Social Care has now removed several providers from the website, run by the UK Health Security Agency, after facing criticism for not doing enough to ensure the prices listed remain accurate.

The Government had expressed concerned about the test cowboys last week and today the list had shrunk by nearly 20 firms, with the lowest 30p offers removed. This morning, £15 PCR tests appeared at the bottom of the price list, although customers clicking through to those websites still face paying £80 for the cheapest test.

Francis Ingham, director of the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation, the trade body for Covid testing firms, said: ‘Cutting out the cowboys increases public confidence in testing and help us all get through Covid.’

It comes as families stuck in red list nations trying to get home could have to wait until 2022 – with no availability at London Heathrow quarantine hotels for a group of two adults and two children for the rest of this month.

A family with two adults and one child face waiting at least for a week until next Monday – while single adults or couples will have to wait until this Wednesday, according to availability on the official bookings portal CTM.

Quarantine hotels cost £2,285 for ten days or 11 nights for one adult in one room, then £1,430 for an additional adult or child over 11, and £325 for a child aged 5 to 11.

Travel testing rip-off: ‘Cowboy’ firms offer 30p PCR tests then charge TWO HUNDRED times more 

The Covid travel testing rip-off has returned after firms on the Government’s approved list of providers listed cheap PCR tests for pennies – before customers clicked through and found the real price was 200 times higher.

The ‘cowboys’ would list a fake low cost to appear top of search results when sorted by price, but when clicking on the link consumers would find this test was unavailable and the next cheapest one was closer to an average price.

In one case as company was advertising a test for just 30p on the Government website in an apparent attempt to lure in travellers, but this was in fact unavailable on the provider’s website with the next cheapest at £59.

The Department of Health and Social Care has now removed several providers from the website, run by the UK Health Security Agency, after facing criticism for not doing enough to ensure the prices listed remain accurate.

The Government had expressed concerned about the test cowboys last week and today the list had shrunk by nearly 20 firms, with the lowest 30p offers removed. This morning, £15 PCR tests appeared at the bottom of the price list, although customers clicking through to those websites still face paying £80 for the cheapest test.

Francis Ingham, director of the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation, the trade body for Covid testing firms, said: ‘Cutting out the cowboys increases public confidence in testing and help us all get through Covid.’

It comes as families stuck in red list nations trying to get home could have to wait until 2022 – with no availability at London Heathrow quarantine hotels for a group of two adults and two children for the rest of this month.

A family with two adults and one child face waiting at least for a week until next Monday – while single adults or couples will have to wait until this Wednesday, according to availability on the official bookings portal CTM.

Quarantine hotels cost £2,285 for ten days or 11 nights for one adult in one room, then £1,430 for an additional adult or child over 11, and £325 for a child aged 5 to 11. You do not have to pay for children under five.

Is the Omicron variant more dangerous than earlier strains and will my Covid-19 vaccines still protect me if I decide to have a quick snog under the mistletoe? Our team of experts answer the crucial questions  

It has been a little over a week since scientists in Botswana and South Africa alerted the world about the emergence of a rapidly spreading new Covid variant – casting a shadow over the forthcoming festive season.

Despite gloom from some quarters about the potential risks it poses, which has seen companies scrambling to cancel Christmas parties, the Prime Minister and Health Secretary were adamant last week that the public should carry on as they have been recently.

Meanwhile, some of our European neighbours have reacted by imposing stringent travel bans, nationwide restrictions and even mandatory vaccination. Amid all this, it’s difficult to know what to make of the risks and how we should respond.

To provide some clarity, The Mail on Sunday spoke to the experts – and the prevailing attitude was that, while Omicron must be taken seriously, its emergence was not unexpected.

Of what little is known, some is concerning and some reassuring. Importantly, based on current evidence, there is no cause for panic.

Here is what you need to know.

Some people seem very worried about the new variant. Should I be, too?

Intense research into Omicron has only just begun, so it’s too soon to know much for certain.

So far there has been a lot of speculation ‘which isn’t helpful’, said Dr Julian Tang, a virus expert at the University of Leicester. ‘Relatively little is known about Omicron, even among scientists,’ added Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh.

The facts so far are as follows. On November 25, South African health officials announced an uptick in Covid cases linked to a new variant. Due to the large number and type of mutations, or changes, to the variant, it could be more transmissible, the scientists said – meaning it could spread faster than previous iterations.

The next day, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a variant of concern, and named it Omicron – the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet – following its variant naming system.

Since then it has been identified in more than 20 countries worldwide, including Britain.

On Thursday, Dr Michelle Groome of South Africa’s National Institute For Communicable Diseases said there had been an ‘exponential increase’ in infections over the past two weeks. In mid-November, the country – where just a quarter of the population have been jabbed – was seeing roughly 300 new cases per day.

Last Monday they recorded 2,858 cases. By Wednesday it was 8,561, and on Friday it was 16,055.

Based on what’s being seen there, experts say the South African scientists’ initial assessment seems correct – Omicron is likely more infectious than the currently dominant Delta variant, which itself was 60 per cent more infectious than the Alpha variant which overtook the original Wuhan virus in late 2020.

And it is this, primarily, that has caused concern. 

How much more infectious is Omicron?

However, due to South Africa’s low vaccination rate it’s not possible to make direct comparisons with European countries.

‘We’d need to see more numbers before putting a figure on it,’ said Prof Woolhouse.

I have read ominous things about ‘vaccine escape’. Does this mean our jabs won’t protect us against Omicron?

The swift spread of Omicron in South Africa hints that it has some capacity to overcome existing immunity, but there is no suggestion that the vaccines will no longer be effective.

Indeed, scientists we spoke to believe the jabs will still provide an ‘incredibly strong’ protection against serious illness, which is key. And this is why the booster programme, which aims to have every adult offered a third dose by the end of January, is still vital.

What we know for certain is that a South African study published last week examined medical reports of roughly three million people with lab-confirmed Covid. It found 35,670 suspected reinfections – people who’d caught Covid a second time after having tested positive three months or more before. Based on this data, the scientists estimated Omicron was three times as likely to cause reinfection as the Delta or Alpha variants.

‘This is not overly surprising,’ said Professor Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London.

‘The large number of mutations in the spike protein [is likely to] increase the Omicron variant’s ability to bypass immunity.’

The spike protein is part of the Covid virus that allows it to bind to healthy cells – much like a key entering a lock. The outer shell of the roughly spherical viral particle is covered in them.

Most Covid vaccines, including the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca jabs, are designed to mimic the coronavirus spike protein. They work, in part, by teaching the immune system to create defensive cells called antibodies which recognise and attach to this part of the virus – stopping the key from ever entering the lock.

Scientists have long known that the more changes there are to the spike protein, the more likely it is that Covid antibodies, even in a fully vaccinated individual, will not recognise the virus, allowing it to slip past the body’s defences. In Omicron, the spike protein has 32 mutations differentiating it from previous variants, which is what has led experts to suspect that existing antibodies will be less effective in fighting it off.

How much this is the case isn’t known. This is partly because antibodies are not the only cells that the immune system develops to fight off viruses.

The Covid vaccines also trigger the creation of T-cells and B-cells – fighter cells that attack foreign invaders – and experts believe that these cells will still be able to identify the Omicron variant, neutralising it before the majority of fully vaccinated people become seriously unwell.

A similar pattern was seen with the Delta variant which arrived in the UK in March. Early lab studies suggested mutations to the spike protein would allow it to slip past many of our antibodies, and scientists estimated the jabs would be only 67 per cent effective – a massive fall from the initial 90 per cent touted by the manufacturers.

However, half a year on, experts believe protection against Delta provided by the vaccines only fell by roughly three per cent.

‘We have our T-cells and B-cells to thank for this,’ said virologist Dr Tang, ‘and I expect we’ll see the same with Omicron.

‘The majority of the vaccinated population will still be protected from the worst of the disease.’

Is it true that Omicron is causing a milder illness than previous variants?

Early signs, again from South Africa, suggest that many people who catch Omicron are experiencing only mild symptoms. However, experts have warned against making too many comparisons or forecasts at this stage.

Based on the current evidence, little is known about the severity of infection – with or without vaccination – caused by Omicron. Prof Balloux said: ‘South Africa has a low vaccination rate but a large proportion of the population has been infected during previous Covid-19 waves. The population of South Africa also tends to be fairly young, with a median age of 27.6 years [compared with 40 in the UK]. More data will be needed before we can make robust predictions about the potential threat posed by a global spread of Omicron.’

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, the WHO’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove said: ‘We have seen reports of cases with Omicron that go from mild all the way to severe. There is some indication that some the patients are presenting with mild disease, but it is early days.’

The severity of Covid illness depends on a multitude of factors, which is what makes this a particularly difficult question to untangle – and a proper answer may not come for many months.

The main concern is that, even if it’s not causing severe illness in general, Omicron could spread rapidly through the vaccinated population, increasing the chances that it will reach vulnerable people whose immune systems have not been sufficiently trained by the vaccines, or the unvaccinated.

Professor Penny Ward, a pharmaceutical expert at King’s College London, said: ‘It may be a while before we know the effect on older, more vulnerable people.’

How quickly is Omicron spreading in the UK?

At the time of going to press, there have been more than 150 cases of the Omicron variant detected in the UK, but scientists believe there are already many more that haven’t been picked up.

A cluster of cases was identified in Scotland, while individual cases have been seen in Liverpool, Norfolk and Nottingham.

However, the majority have been seen in London, including an Israeli doctor who attended a medical conference before travelling back to Tel Aviv, where he was diagnosed.

Experts say these will just be ‘the tip of the iceberg’ because roughly only one in seven PCR tests are analysed for variants.

‘We know from experience of Alpha and Delta that by the time you’ve learnt it’s here, the horse has already bolted,’ said Dr Tang. ‘Considering we have so few restrictions in place, it’s likely this virus will propagate at speed.’

However, it will likely take some time before it outpaces Delta, which is still causing nearly 50,000 new cases each day.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘It’s unlikely we’ll see big Omicron numbers before January.’

Will we see more restrictions?

On Monday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that hospitalisations would be ‘what matters more than anything’ when considering further measures.

And based on what we know so far, these are unlikely to rise for some time.

The variant would have to significantly reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines before major social restrictions such as lockdowns were necessary in the UK, experts told us.

Studies show the booster jabs, which have now been given to nearly 90 per cent of Britons over the age of 70, provide an unprecedented level of protection against the virus – and even if Omicron ‘dents’ this, we’re starting from an ideal position to fight it off, said Dr David Strain, clinical Covid lead at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust.

According to an Israeli study published in November, a third dose of the Pfizer jab increased protection against symptomatic infection to as much as 94 per cent.

The effect of this is already being seen in the UK, where hospitalisations are now falling – particularly in older age groups – even as Covid cases rise.

Dr Strain explained: ‘The boosters put us in a wonderful position before this new variant arrived. Omicron has dented that campaign somewhat, but if you are fully boosted you are still in an ideal position to defend against it.’

Disease modellers believe that the strength of the boosters is such that the NHS could ‘tolerate’ even a large wave of Omicron.

Prof Woolhouse said: ‘Healthcare settings could probably bear some fall-off in protection, given just how effective the boosters appear to be.

‘However, I’d like to see some numbers before I say that with certainty. Studies looking at how effective the boosters are against this variant are a priority right now.’

On November 25, the Government announced that it would temporarily ban travellers from six southern African countries, and reintroduce PCR tests for all passengers on arrival, no matter where from, to combat the spread of the variant.

And last week masks once again became mandatory in indoor public spaces, including shops and public transport.

These measures will buy the UK some time while scientists race to analyse the variant, Ministers have said.

We’ve been told that boosters are vital – but the rules keep changing. How will I know when and where to get mine?

Last week the Government announced that all adults would be offered a booster Covid vaccine three months after their second dose. It means the entire adult population will have at least been given the opportunity to have a third dose by the end of January.

On Friday, NHS England issued an update, saying the rollout would begin on December 13.

Until then, those eligible to book a booster remains as it was: only those aged 40 and over; those aged 16 and over with a health condition that puts them at high risk from Covid; and frontline health and social care workers who had their second dose more than six months ago.

These groups should already have received an invitation, via text message or email or both.

After December 13, as with the initial vaccine campaign, people will be invited in descending age order. Again, this will be in the form of text or email.

At present, if you look at the NHS Covid vaccine booking website, it states in a yellow box at the top of the page: ‘The NHS is working on plans to offer a booster dose to everyone aged 18 years old and over… Please wait to be contacted by the NHS.’

The Government recommends that people book a jab appointment or locate a walk-in service through the NHS website (go to nhs.uk, scroll down and click ‘Find out about Covid-19 vaccination’ – or Google ‘book a Covid jab’, and click on the top result, titled: Book or manage a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination).

The process is relatively straightforward and requires people to enter their name, age, and address (the nhs.uk booking form asks if you know your NHS number, however it’s not a problem if you don’t have this to hand).

Once this is done, you will be given a list of nearby clinics where you can access the booster. These might be a GP surgery, a pharmacist, a hub at a community centre, hospital or a walk-in service.

Anyone who has trouble accessing the internet can book their booster jab through their GP, but family doctors have asked that this is done as a last resort.

Dr Dean Eggitt, a Doncaster-based GP, said: ‘If you ring up your surgery for help with a booster jab, they should be able to organise it for you, but you could be waiting on the phone for quite some time so it is far speedier to do it online.’

Eligible people who are housebound will be prioritised under the new system, and should already be known to their GP, who will organise a booster to be done in the home. If you are housebound and are not sure if your GP is aware, you should contact them. Patients in hospital who have not yet had their booster will also be able to receive their shot in hospital.

In some areas, such as the Isle of Wight and Hampshire, special ‘booster buses’ have been deployed, offering jabs to eligible passers-by in different locations on each day.

Do we have enough vaccines to boost everyone?

Yes, but the real challenge will be finding enough people to administer them. According to the Government, there are enough available vaccines to offer every adult in England a top-up shot by the end of January.

To achieve this, the number of boosters administered every day will have to increase from 350,000 to 500,000.

Speaking on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that 1,500 pharmacies would begin providing boosters alongside temporary vaccine centres that will be ‘popping up like Christmas trees’, as well as 400 military personnel and a ‘jabs army’ of volunteers.

GPs will also be called on to carry out more boosters, and will be offered up to £30 per vaccine given. However, GPs have warned this will affect the level of care they can offer patients.

Dr Eggitt said the challenge was enormous: ‘If we’re expected to vaccinate on this ambitious timeline, practices will have to make the decision over what they will do less of, and that may include measures such as temporarily suspending routine health checks.’

What about Christmas? Is it really OK to carry on as planned?

Yes, but it wouldn’t hurt to be careful, say experts. It is too soon to say how quickly the Omicron variant will proliferate, but based on experience with the Delta variant it will take several months before it becomes widespread.

This means the chances of catching Omicron right now are incredibly small, and that will still be so in three weeks’ time. For this reason, socialising with family is still a low-risk activity.

‘I really don’t think Christmas is anything to worry about,’ said Prof Hunter.

‘During Christmas and Boxing Day you’re actually mixing with fewer people than you do on a normal day – so if anything you’re reducing your chances of catching it during this period.’

Scientists point out that, right now, the huge presence of Delta is a bigger worry, with more than 50,000 new cases a day.

Ministers have sent mixed messages, with Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey warning the public not to ‘snog’ under the mistletoe, and Mr Javid countering that ‘it’s got nothing to do with the Government who you kiss’.

He did however encourage people to take lateral flow tests before attending Christmas parties.

Prof Hunter said: ‘I think if you are older, and concerned about your health and Omicron, I would probably recommend giving crowded Christmas parties in busy bars a miss, because the number of people you will be mixing with is much larger.

‘I wouldn’t tell anyone to cancel their Christmas Day plans.’

Prof Woolhouse said: ‘There’s nothing in the data to suggest any need for a policy change before Christmas. Hospitalisations and deaths are still falling.

‘I agree that taking a lateral flow test before attending a Christmas party would be wise – we know these tests will flag up this new variant, as well as others.’

Could more jabs be needed, even after the booster?

Possibly. On Thursday it was announced that the UK had bought 114 million extra booster jabs from Pfizer and Moderna, which will be used over 2022 and 2023. Vaccine developers are already putting plans in place to adapt their current jabs to the new variant, should it be deemed dangerous, but this does not necessarily mean that new vaccines will be needed.

The technology used to create the Pfizer and Moderna jabs can be tweaked at speed to match the mutations of emerging variants. Last week Pfizer said it was investigating the Omicron variant to assess whether an ‘adjustment’ was needed. If it is, the American firm said it could develop new doses in six weeks and begin shipping in just over three months.

Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca have also said they are analysing how effective their vaccines are against Omicron. However, Ugur Sahin, chief executive and co-founder of Pfizer’s German partner BioNTech, said: ‘We think it’s likely that vaccinated people will already have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron.’

Despite this, virus expert Professor Lawrence Young, at Warwick Medical School, said it would be prudent for the manufacturers to adapt future boosters to the Omicron variant whatever the result. ‘There are only so many mutations that can occur to the spike protein, and Omicron has the most we’ve seen yet by far. Any vaccine that can be adapted to match it will have a good chance at fighting off any future variants too.’

There seem to be more questions than answers. When will we know more?

Experts say it could be months before we have a clearer understanding of Omicron.

Scientists around the world are currently analysing the variant. Blood samples taken from people either previously infected with the virus or fully vaccinated against it will be exposed to Omicron, to see how the two interact. Primarily, they will be looking at how effective existing Covid antibodies are at neutralising the new variant. Even then, laboratory tests can only work out how much protection prior immunity provides. They do not tell us much about the severity of disease.

Professor Penny Ward, a pharmaceutical expert at King’s College London, said: ‘The only way we can know how many people will end up in hospital or dead as a result of the variant is through real-world data involving people.’

This means the more people who catch the virus the clearer the picture will become. Last week, Professor Wendy Barclay, a virologist at Imperial College London, said: ‘It will take several weeks if not a few months before we have clearer answers.’

Will this blasted pandemic never end?

Government scientific advisers warned Ministers that Covid would be a threat to the NHS ‘for at least a further five years’, according to documents released on Friday.

After that, the scientists – members of the Government’s virus modelling group Spi-M – said it was likely the virus would settle into a ‘predictable endemic state’ – where the virus continues to circulate in the population but does not threaten to overwhelm the health service.

The Government have already bought two more years’ worth of vaccine supply, for annual boosters in 2022 and 2023.

‘After Omicron there will be another variant, and another after that,’ said Prof Woolhouse.

Scientists make the comparison with Russian Flu, a pandemic that occurred in the 1890s killing around one million people. Modern studies suggest that Russian Flu was a form of coronavirus called OC43, similar in structure to the one that causes Covid. Professor Young said: ‘The Russian Flu pandemic went on for roughly four years and then petered out. I’d expect us to see a similar pattern.’

However, Prof Woolhouse did have some hope: ‘The majority of deaths from Russian Flu happened in the first two years. Based on that, and the strength of our vaccines, I’m confident the worst of this pandemic is behind us.’

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