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Neil Ferguson warns full lockdown might be needed to stop Omicron overwhelming NHS

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'Professor Lockdown ' Neil Ferguson refused to rule out a lockdown and claimed WFH could slow Omicron down and buy the UK precious time

‘Professor Lockdown ‘ Neil Ferguson refused to rule out a lockdown and claimed WFH could slow Omicron down and buy the UK precious time

‘Professor Lockdown‘ Neil Ferguson today refused to rule out another nationwide shutdown to tackle the Omicron super variant as he warned that it will be dominant before Christmas.

The Government scientist, whose modelling bounced No10 into the original lockdown last spring, said the return of stay-at-home orders ‘certainly might be possible’ if the mutant strain threatens to overwhelm the NHS.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘There is a rationale, just epidemiologically, to try and slow this down, to buy us more time principally to get boosters into people’s arms because we do think people who are boosted will have the best level of protection possible, but also to buy us more time to really better characterise the threat.’

It is unclear how the British public would react to fresh social restrictions over Christmas after allegations surfaced this week that Boris Johnson held a rule-breaking lockdown party in Downing Street last December, when millions of Britons were unable to visit loved ones.

There are growing concerns about festive freedoms after the total number of British Omicron cases rose to 437 yesterday, with the highly evolved variant now in every country in the UK and almost every region of England.

But experts warn thousands of cases are flying under the radar because not all samples are analysed for variants and Omicron is estimated to be doubling every two or three days — much faster than when Delta exploded on the scene. 

Omicron cases are concentrated in London and in Scotland. As Britain’s major transport hub, London has often been the UK’s epicentre for new variants. But Professor Ferguson claimed Omicron might have been seeded in Glasgow at the Cop26 climate summit at the start of November in Glasgow. 

According to reports, No10 is already drawing up new plans for Britons to work from home and for offices to be closed in an attempt to avoid bringing in last-minute Christmas curbs. One source said Mr Johnson and his chief scientists gave a ‘sobering’ Omicron briefing to Cabinet yesterday in an effort to soften up ministers for tougher curbs.

Ministers are due to review the current suite of anti-Omicron measures — compulsory masks and stricter travel testing protocols — on December 18, which has raised fears that Britons could be stung by last-minute restrictions just days before Christmas. 

Professor Ferguson said light measures like WFH ‘wouldn’t stop it but it could slow it down’ and buy the country precious time, extending the doubling time to five or six days. ‘That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it actually is potentially a lot in terms of allowing us to characterise this virus better and boost population immunity,’ he added. 

The Imperial College London scientist said that while Omicron was concerning, it is still unclear what impact it will have on severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths. The first lab study of the super-variant in South Africa last night found that people given two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine produce forty times less antibodies when exposed to Omicron.

Professor Ferguson said the finding suggests Omicron will cut the effectiveness of current vaccines on mild disease in half, but he said they should still hold up against severe illness. But experts tell MailOnline that even if the new strain is milder, if it can infect significantly more people than Delta then it will cause bigger surges in hospital admissions than its predecessor.

There are growing concerns about festive freedoms after the total number of British Omicron cases rose to 437 yesterday

There are growing concerns about festive freedoms after the total number of British Omicron cases rose to 437 yesterday

Infections of the highly evolved variant are doubling every two or three days. The above graph shows how the number of daily cases of Omicron could breach the 100,000 barrier before New Year's Day, if that pace continues

Infections of the highly evolved variant are doubling every two or three days. The above graph shows how the number of daily cases of Omicron could breach the 100,000 barrier before New Year’s Day, if that pace continues

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

Downing Street has insisted that ministers had not discussed the introduction of so-called Plan B measures, such as working from home and vaccine passports. 

But The Telegraph also reports that officials working on Covid policy have carried out modelling on the economic impact of making people leave their offices.  

Pfizer vaccine provides FORTY times fewer antibodies to fight Omicron than it does other Covid variants, study finds

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine could be significantly less effective against the newly discovered Omicron variant that it was against previous strains of the virus.

Researchers at the African Health Research Institute (AHRI) found that there are forty times less antibodies in Pfizer vaccine recipients that can fight Omicron than there are for other variants.

The pre-print study, made available Tuesday pending peer-review, implies that the vaccine could be less effective against the strain detected last month in South Africa.

Conclusions from it cannot yet be drawn, though, and researchers are not yet sure how much more likely the Omicron variant is to cause infection in a vaccinated person than other strains are.

The new variant has been detected in at least 19 U.S. states and nearly 50 countries worldwide as of Tuesday night, and is feared to be the most contagious strain of the virus yet.

Both Communities Secretary Michael Gove and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries are believed to back the introduction of controversial vaccine passports, whilst other senior ministers are opposed. 

But senior Tories last night warned the PM he would face a major backlash if he attempted to impose new restrictions to control the spread of a new variant which has yet to put a single person in the UK in hospital.

Possible options for tighter Covid rules in the coming weeks were drawn up – although no decisions on their introduction have yet been taken – after Cabinet ministers were shocked by the speed of Omicron’s spread.  

One Cabinet source urged Mr Johnson to stick to his guns and resist calls from Government scientists to impose restrictions before the possible threat from Omicron is even known. 

Another backed ex-PM Theresa May, who said on Monday that Britain could not afford to respond to every new variant by ‘stopping and starting sectors of our economy’. 

The minister said: ‘Theresa was right… We have to learn to live with it. We cannot run the country solely in order to manage demand for the NHS.’

Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the Government had to ‘hold our nerve’ and trust in the protection of the vaccination programme.

Former Cabinet minister David Davis said: ‘As far as I can see, Omicron appears to be a very infectious but less virulent variant.’

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday told company bosses to tell employees to work from home if possible until mid-January and the Government in Westminster is believed to be considering opting for the same advice.   

Some businesses have already begun taking extra precautions. Although ministers have told providers to allow visits to care homes, operators have started to ban visits over the Christmas period. Elsewhere, some firms have told employees to work from home.  

Ministers who are believed to be cautious about the introduction of vaccine passports include Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack. But Health Secretary Sajid Javid has not yet outlined his position.

Whilst yesterday’s debate was described as a ‘loose discussion’ by a source quoted in The Times, there are believed to be ‘more conversations’ in Whitehall about possible plan B measures than there have been in recent months. 

The concentration of Omicron cases in Scotland raised questions about whether the variant may have been imported into the country at the COP26 climate summit, which was held in Glasgow in the first fortnight of November

The concentration of Omicron cases in Scotland raised questions about whether the variant may have been imported into the country at the COP26 climate summit, which was held in Glasgow in the first fortnight of November

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 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 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 

WHO says Omicron is not more severe than other variants and jabs should work against it 

Omicron appears to be less severe than other Covid variants, a World Health Organization official says after a study found vaccines offer less protection against the super strain. 

Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, said despite likely being more transmissible than other variants, early data suggests it is less severe than other stains.

And vaccines should protection against severe illness and hospitalisation, as they have done for previous worrying variants, such as Beta and Delta, he said.

But he warned more research is needed to grasp what impact Omicron will have and the current crop of Covid jabs could be less effective.

His comments come after a study from a research institute in South Africa found 40 times less Pfizer-triggered antibodies can fight against an infection caused by Omicron compared to other variants.

But scientists behind the research, which is the first to use data from epicentre of the Omicron outbreak, says better than expected.

And it is unclear what antibody reduction means in real terms, as antibodies are just one part of the overall immune response to Covid. Although they are normally a reliable indictor.

But Boris Johnson yesterday acknowledged appears more transmissible. Even if it causes milder illness than other strains, if a large proportion of the population catch the virus, it could put the NHS under severe pressure if hospitalisations trend upwards.

Prof Neil Ferguson this morning this morning said too early to tell if more stringent measure are needed to control the strain, but may be needed. 

Mr Johnson made his warnings to the Cabinet in a downbeat presentation, where he was joined by Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.  

Professor Ferguson said that while further restrictions were a ministerial decision, he claimed it could buy scientists time to work out how worrying Omicron is.

Speaking in a personal capacity, he told Radio 4 Today: ‘Certainly case numbers of Omicron are doubling at least every three days, maybe even every two days at the moment, so it’s accelerating very fast and put that in context, it’s the same if not faster than we saw with the original strain of the virus in March of last year. So it is a concern.

‘It’s likely to overtake Delta before Christmas at this rate, precisely when is hard to say.

‘We’ll start seeing an impact on overall case numbers – it’s still probably only 2 per cent, 3 per cent of all cases so it’s kind of swamped, but within a week or two, we’ll start seeing overall case numbers accelerate quite markedly as well.’

Professor Ferguson said the peak of this wave of infection will be in January if no measures are taken to slow it down.

‘So if you don’t do anything at the current time, it will most likely be sometime in January. But I think the key question is whether the country decides to adopt measures to either slow it down or try to stop it and that will critically depend on really the threat it poses in terms of hospitalisations.

‘At the moment, we don’t really have a good handle on the severity of this virus, there’s a little hint in the UK data that infections are a little bit more likely to be asymptomatic, but we really need to firm up that evidence at the current time.’

Asked whether people should be told to work from home, he said: ‘It will be up to the Government to decide what to announce in the coming days and weeks.

‘There is a rationale, just epidemiologically, to try and slow this down, to buy us more time principally to get boosters into people’s arms because we do think people who are boosted will have the best level of protection possible, but also to buy us more time to really better characterise the threat.

‘So if you imagine a kind of Plan B Plus with working from home might slow it down – it wouldn’t stop it but it could slow it down, so it’s doubling rather than every two or three days, every five or six days.

‘That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it actually is potentially a lot in terms of allowing us to characterise this virus better and boost population immunity.’

Regarding lockdowns, Prof Ferguson said it was very difficult to rule out anything, adding that we ‘haven’t got a good enough handle on the threat’.

He added: ‘Clearly, if the consensus is it is highly likely that the NHS is going to be overwhelmed then it will be for the Government to decide what what he wants to do about that, but it’s a difficult situation to be in of course.’

Government draws up ‘Plan B’ proposals to urge closure of offices in bid to curb festive omicron surge 

New plans for Britons to work from home and for offices to be closed are being drawn up by the Government to curb a surge in Omicron variant case numbers over the festive period – but Cabinet ministers last night urged Boris Johnson to hold his nerve and resist tighter Covid restrictions this Christmas.

The Prime Minister had yesterday warned the Cabinet that the new Omicron variant appears to be ‘more transmissible’ than previous strains and is spreading quickly across the UK.

Whilst Downing Street had insisted that ministers had not discussed the introduction of so-called Plan B measures, such as working from home and vaccine passports, one source said Mr Johnson’s ‘sobering’ briefing appeared to be designed to soften up ministers for the potential introduction of tougher curbs in the coming days.

The Telegraph also reported that officials working on Covid policy have carried out modelling on the economic impact of making people leave their offices.

Both Communities Secretary Michael Gove and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries are believed to back the introduction of controversial vaccine passports, whilst other senior ministers are opposed.

But senior Tories last night warned the PM he would face a major backlash if he attempted to impose new restrictions to control the spread of a new variant which has yet to put a single person in the UK in hospital.

Possible options for tighter Covid rules in the coming weeks were drawn up – although no decisions on their introduction have yet been taken – after Cabinet ministers were shocked by the speed of Omicron’s spread.

Pushed on whether lockdowns might be possible, he said: ‘It certainly might be possible at the current time.’

Earlier, Prof Ferguson pointed to a new lab-based study from South Africa suggesting the Pfizer vaccine works less well against Omicron.

He added: ‘There’s a little bit of preliminary work even from the UK which suggests if you’ve had two doses, for instance of Pfizer, then just protection against mild disease may be roughly halved.

‘But we think that protection against severe disease is much more likely to be maintained at the high level, but we don’t have firm data on that. That’s just based on extrapolation from past experience.’

The professor also said that visitors coming to Scotland for the climate change conference Cop26 last month may have caused early seeding there, but he added this was ‘speculation’.

It comes as Health Secretary Sajid Javid pulled out of a key broadcast interview following the emergence of leaked footage showing Government aides joking about a festive gathering last year.

In footage obtained by ITV News and released on Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s then-press secretary Allegra Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, were filmed laughing about a ‘fictional’ Downing Street party in December 2020.

The Today programme said Mr Javid was scheduled to feature on Wednesday morning, but cancelled after the footage emerged.

Meanwhile, the new study on Omicron from South Africa suggests it appears to reduce the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine though experts said a booster shot could help.

The study, which has been published online but not peer-reviewed, found that antibodies produced by vaccinated people were less good at keeping the Omicron variant from infecting cells than other forms of the coronavirus.

While some experts said the data was concerning, it only covers one part of the immune system and did not look at T cell immunity, which is thought to play a role in longer-term protection.

Researchers at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban used a lab study to look at the effect of Pfizer on Omicron and found about a 40-fold reduction in levels of neutralising antibodies produced by people who had received two doses of the PfizerBioNTech vaccine, compared with original Wuhan strain of the virus.

Professor Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, who led the research, told reporters: ‘While I think there’s going to be a lot of infection, I’m not sure this is going to translate into systems collapsing.

‘My guess is that it’ll be under control.’

Prof Sigal also tweeted last night: ‘Just be be clear on something…this was better than I expected of Omicron.’

Matt Hancock says police should investigate ‘illegal’ No 10 Christmas party 

Matt Hancock has claimed he did not know about an alleged lockdown-breaking Christmas party in Downing Street last year.

The disgraced former health secretary repeatedly denied knowing about the supposed meet up on December 18 until last night.

The backbencher, who was forced out of the Cabinet over an affair with his aide, said he was not there and neither was Boris Johnson – ‘if there was a party’.

But he suggested any Metropolitan Police investigation into the event was a matter for them to probe.

It comes after Sajid Javid pulled out of the media rounds this morning and was brutally ’empty chaired’ by the BBC.

Presenters Jon Kay and Sally Nugent cut to footage of their Westminster studio to show the Health Secretary was nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile the PM will today be interrogated about the alleged celebrations after leaked footage showed his then spokesman joking about a festive gathering.

He faces a grilling in the Commons at PMQs, with Sir Keir Starmer expected to put the boot in for a second week running about what happened.

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