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Covid? What Covid? Little sign of Omicron fears as Brits enjoy the last night out before Christmas

SAGE’s scientists are warning that Christmas may have to be cancelled for a second year with calls for a two-week circuit breaker lockdown and a ban on indoor mixing to stop hospitalisations from the Omicron Covid wave peaking at 3,000 a day. 

Leaked minutes of a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warn that restrictions are needed ‘very soon’ to avoid hospitalisations rising to 3,000 a day.

During the meeting on Thursday, the experts backed a ban on indoor social contact and hospitality. In what could be a blow to Britons planning New Year parties, they want fresh measures to come in before January 1.

‘The timing of such measures is crucial,’ said the minutes, seen by the BBC. ‘Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.’  

An emergency Cobra meeting will discuss if a joint response to the threat of the Omicron variant is needed across the UK. The meeting will raise fears that more curbs could be imposed before Christmas – despite the opposition of Tory MPs and Downing Street’s apparent determination to get through without them.

It comes as Britain recorded its highest number of daily infections since the pandemic began, with a total of 93,045 people testing positive for Covid in the past 24 hours, up 60 per cent in a week. 

Industry experts had feared the Government’s increasingly alarmist messages surrounding the Omicron mutant strain was affecting customer confidence over what should be a peak period for pubs, bars and restaurants.

Festive takings are expected to fall by up to 40 per cent in December – crippling venues that survived by a thread during previous lockdowns and expect to receive no financial support this time around.

Tory ministers are set for crunch talks this weekend to discuss whether new Covid curbs are needed following dire warnings from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies group’s scientists.  

This weekend’s Cobra meeting, involving ministers from all the devolved administrations, is the second in a matter of days. 

Boris Johnson held crisis talks with the leaders of the three devolved administrations, including Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, earlier this week.

During the meeting on Thursday, the experts backed a ban on indoor social contact and hospitality. In what could be a blow to Britons planning New Year parties, they want fresh measures to come in before January 1.

‘The timing of such measures is crucial,’ said the minutes, seen by the BBC.

‘Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.’ 

But health experts and business chiefs last night hit back at the plans as they warned the mandatory ten-day self isolation rule was ‘lockdown by stealth’ – keeping people at home even when their symptoms and infectiousness had eased. 

Whitehall officials are preparing draft regulations that would ban meeting others indoors except for work purposes, and pubs and restaurants would be limited to outdoor service only, reported The Times. 

According to the Sage minutes, the advisers recommended moving back to restrictions set down in Step One and Two of the roadmap out of lockdown in the spring, which involved a ban on indoor social contact and indoor hospitality.

They warned that solely sticking to Plan B could lead to ‘at least’ 3,000 hospital admissions a day in England. Admissions have been between 800 and 900 a day in the past week. Introducing these measures early enough ‘could substantially reduce the peak in hospital admission and infections compared with Plan B alone’, the minutes said.

The surging statistics came as Professor Neil Ferguson — whose projections have spooked No10 into lockdowns before — called for curbs to be tightened by New Year on the back of his latest modelling of the mutant strain. 

Boris Johnson was presented with several options yesterday for a so-called Plan C, ranging from ‘mild guidance to nudge people, right through to lockdown’, according to the Financial Times. 

Any further restrictions would increase the pressure on Rishi Sunak to give more help to the hospitality sector, which has been hit by the warnings over the new strain.

The ‘California Chancellor’ was pictured arriving back in the UK for crunch talks with furious hospitality bosses struggling with plummeting demand due to the Omicron mutant strain.

Mr Sunak had been in the US on a ‘long-planned’ Government trip to meet tech bosses but his timing has attracted criticism, with one top British executive telling the FT that he was too busy drinking ‘organic kale smoothies’.

The Chancellor met hospitality leaders yesterday via Zoom but had to miss one roundtable event because it clashed with a scheduled call with US healthcare bosses.

Bosses are demanding the Government bring forward fresh financial support after the spread of the variant and the latest Covid advice to be cautious ahead of Christmas prompted a wave of booking cancellations. Industry leaders expect the final total to hit £4billion of lost takings.

But Mr Sunak insisted ministers were already helping, telling the BBC: ‘Until spring next year most businesses are only paying a quarter of their business rates bill, they are benefitting from a reduced rate of VAT all the way through to next spring, and thirdly there is about a quarter of a billion pounds of cash sitting with local authorities to support those businesses.’

Mr Sunak and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke held calls yesterday with firms including Prezzo, Black Sheep Brewery, Nando’s, Greene King, Whitbread and Adnams. 

He insisted ministers were not telling people to cancel their Christmas events, adding: ‘The situation is very different to what we’ve done and encountered before. We’re not telling people to cancel things, we’re not closing down businesses.’

Many have been left enraged by advice from government scientists to cut down on socialising which has led to a collapse in trade.

Irish hospitality chiefs have warned new Covid restrictions will ‘decimate’ their trade and lead to job losses in Ireland.

The Irish cabinet agreed that hospitality venues, cinemas and theatres should have a closing time of 8pm from Monday to deal with the threat from the Covid-19 Omicron variant.

Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) said pubs would be forced to close their doors for the duration of the restrictions.

In the UK, the CBI and other groups asked him for emergency grants, 100 per cent business rates relief for retail, and for VAT to be reduced to 5 per cent for hospitality and tourism.

The business groups raised concerns about the impact of cancellations on certain sectors and the importance of clear messaging from the Government.

It came as figures showed that footfall in London’s West End on Thursday was 32 per cent down on the same day in 2019, before the pandemic. Numbers were down 7 per cent on a week ago.

Traffic levels at the same period today were 33 per cent in Birmingham, 36 per cent in Manchester, 40 per cent in Liverpool, 34 per cent in Sheffield, 46 per cent in Leeds and 28 per cent in Newcastle.

Pubs and restaurants have now started closing early for Christmas after they were hit by a ‘double whammy’ of staff absences and plummeting consumer confidence.

Some restaurants said they had ‘no option’ but to shut because so many of their staff have caught coronavirus and have had to isolate amid fears the problem will worsen as the ‘tidal wave’ of infections surges across the country.

Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End Company, said: ‘With rising Covid cases dampening consumer confidence and a planned Tube strike looming on Saturday, we’re anticipating a muted final weekend of Christmas trading at a time when West End businesses should be enjoying a much-needed boost.

‘The Government must act quickly to provide temporary financial support to leisure businesses across the UK, otherwise we run the risk of further viable businesses closing their doors in the coming months.’

The Institute of Directors’ chief economist, Kitty Ussher, said: ‘It made sense to unwind pandemic-related business support schemes when it looked like business conditions were beginning to return to some semblance of normality.

‘However, following the Omicron variant and the subsequent drop in consumer demand in some parts of the economy, this is patently no longer the case. For restaurants, travel companies and venues, this couldn’t come at a worse time.

‘We are therefore calling on government to stop the unwinding of remaining support schemes, such as the VAT reduction for hospitality and business rates support.’

It comes as Britain could reach up to 460,000 daily Covid cases by Christmas Eve – forcing two million people into isolation – if infections continue to increase as quickly as some scientists expect. Such huge numbers could cause massive disruption to key services from people being off work. 

Labour has called on the Government to announce a new support package for the sector but ministers are yet to commit to providing any extra cash.

It is feared that the UK could be recording hundreds of thousands of daily Covid cases by Christmas Eve as Omicron continues to surge.

That could force millions of Brits into isolation, potentially causing huge disruption to the workforce and to key industries.  

The hospitality industry has accused Boris Johnson of imposing a ‘lockdown by stealth’ after Professor Chris Whitty urged people to limit socialising in the coming days.    

Mr Johnson denied the claim yesterday, telling reporters: ‘We’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.’

Some small pubs and restaurants are deciding it is better to shut than stay open, either because lots of their staff have contracted Covid and are not available, or because nearly all their bookings have been cancelled. However, most venues remain open and very few big chains have shut. 

Late on Thursday, the Welsh government said it would close nightclubs from December 27 and impose a two-metre social distancing rule in offices.


Gloomy modelling from ‘Professor Lockdown’ today suggested there could be 5,000 Omicron deaths a day this winter without more restrictions as Britain’s overall Covid cases rocketed to record levels for the third day in a row.

A total of 93,045 people tested positive for Covid in the past 24 hours, up 60 per cent in a week, but the ultra-virulent variant is thought to be doubling nationally every two days and spreading faster than testing can keep up. 

In an early warning sign, coronavirus hospitalisations in Omicron hotspot London have spiked by more than a third in a week — although they are rising from a small base with just 199 admitted on Tuesday. 

Around a quarter of today’s cases were in London alone, where infections have risen fivefold since the world was alerted to Omicron’s existence on November 24.

Meanwhile, another 3,201 new cases of Omicron were confirmed in Britain today, taking the total number to 14,909 as it becomes the dominant strain nationally. This is a vast underestimate due to the time it takes to analyse positive samples for variants and experts say up to 400,000 Brits could be catching it per day. 

The surging statistics came as Professor Neil Ferguson — whose projections have spooked No10 into lockdowns before — called for curbs to be tightened by New Year on the back of his latest modelling of the mutant strain. 

His team at Imperial College London found that even in a best case scenario, there could be roughly 3,000 daily Omicron deaths at the peak in January without further curbs — much higher than the previous record of 1,800 during the second wave.

The projections will anger backbench Tory MPs who this week launched an attack on Chris Whitty and accused No10’s Government advisers of ‘running the show’.

Imperial found ‘no evidence’ the variant was less severe than Delta, dismissing real-world evidence in South Africa, and estimate it is five-and-a-half times more likely to re-infect people and make vaccines significantly weaker. 

Drawing on data from Omicron’s spread in the UK, as well as lab tests on vaccine effectiveness, they concluded: ‘Omicron poses a major, imminent threat to public health’. 

Professor Ferguson — who predicted 500,000 Covid deaths in the first wave without lockdown — said tighter curbs were needed ‘in a week or two’ to have a significant effect on the size of the peak of the new wave.

The latest projections will raise fears that Britons could be stung by last-minute festive restrictions once again, with Boris Johnson repeatedly refusing to rule a full lockdown out if hospitalisations start to surge.

Wales has already announced the return of social distancing and closure of nightclubs from Boxing Day, while Scots are urged to limit mixing to three households and people in England are advised to ‘prioritise’ social events.

But in a glimmer of hope, the South African Government today declared that infections have peaked in the epicentre Gauteng province, and nationally there are only 385 hospital admissions per day and 30 deaths. 

Professor Ferguson’s team did not model scenarios for Britain, instead they offered hypothetical situations for a ‘high-income country with substantial prior transmission and high vaccine access’. Modellers presented three different scenarios for daily Covid deaths with Omicron, based on how deadly the virus proved to be and its ability to dodge vaccines. Under the most pessimistic estimate (shown right), the team warned of 100 daily deaths per million people for a country that vaccinated the majority of over-10s and given out boosters to the majority of over-40s – like the UK. At the other end of the scale, the figure stood at around 50 per million when the same vaccination calculations were taken into account (left). The team’s central projection – which it told MailOnline was its ‘best estimate’ – suggested daily deaths could peak at around 75 per million in early 2022 (shown centre). VFR (variant fold reduction) is essentially a measure of current Covid vaccine effectiveness against Omicron. Specifically, how many more antibodies you need against Omicron to achieve the same vaccine results as the jab would have against Delta

Professor Ferguson — the Government adviser whose modelling has spooked No10 into lockdowns before — said tighter curbs were needed 'in a week or two' to have a significant effect on the size of the peak of the new wave

Omicron's prevalence across England

Professor Ferguson — the Government adviser whose modelling has spooked No10 into lockdowns before — said tighter curbs were needed ‘in a week or two’ to have a significant effect on the size of the peak of the new wave

Covid hospital admissions have spiked by more than a third in a week in Britain's Omicron hotspot of London, official data shows. Some 199 infected patients were admitted to wards in London on Tuesday, the most recent day UKHSA figures are available for

Covid hospital admissions have spiked by more than a third in a week in Britain’s Omicron hotspot of London, official data shows 

Prime Minster Boris Johnson — who has repeatedly refused to rule out another lockdown if Omicron is as bad as scientists say — sits with members of the Metropolitan Police in their break room, as he makes a constituency visit to Uxbridge police station on December 17

Prime Minster Boris Johnson — who has repeatedly refused to rule out another lockdown if Omicron is as bad as scientists say — sits with members of the Metropolitan Police in their break room, as he makes a constituency visit to Uxbridge police station on December 17

Meanwhile, daily Covid deaths — which are a lagging indicator — fell in the UK today with 111 fatalities down by 7.5 per cent on last Friday. Latest hospital data shows there were 900 admissions on December 13, up 7 per cent in a week. 

Professor Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial and one of the researchers behind the modelling, said the 5,000 deaths per day estimate was an ‘illustration of the need to act’. 

Yesterday, Chris Whitty told MPs yesterday that he was ‘extremely cautious’ about SAGE’s modelling of Omicron because there are still some ‘really critical things we don’t know’ about the variant. 

SAGE’s models have been criticised several times in the past for overegging the UK’s epidemic, most recently projecting 6,000 daily Delta hospital admissions in October. 

The history of Professor Lockdown’s predictions vs reality  

Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London earned his moniker ‘Professor Lockdown’ after producing research in March 2020 that predicted there would be 510,000 Covid deaths in the UK by August that year if the Government allowed the virus to sweep through the population with no restrictions.

About 250,000 Britons would still perish, the research added, if the Government maintained the then-policy of social distancing and hand-washing without a lockdown. 

This piece of research is credited with terrifying Government into imposing the national lockdown that saw Britons told to stay at home, separated families, friends and loved ones from each other in the name of reducing transmission and preventing virus cases from overwhelming the NHS.

The UK experienced 41,650 deaths from the virus by the end of August 2020 after a brutal lockdown from March until June which makes it impossible to predict if Professor Ferguson’s 510,000 death toll would have come true. 

Professor Ferguson infamously failed to obey lockdown rules when the married academic had an illicit liaison with his lover Antonia Staats who met him at this home twice in the first few weeks of the national lockdown. 

He was heavily criticised at the time for lecturing Britons on the importance of following the lockdown rules whilst simultaneously flouting them.

The controversy led to his eventual resignation as a Government advisor on SAGE in May 2020 with a No10 spokesperson sayin Professor Ferguson ‘will no longer attend, participate or contribute to SAGE meetings’.

But it later emerged in December that year that the epidemiologist had quietly continued to influence SAGE via his role in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling committee, and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG). 

Both these groups feed into SAGE, and NERVTAG was partly responsible for pushing the Government into cancelling Christmas for 16million people in 2020 due to its gloomy warnings about the new mutant strain. 

Professor Ferguson has also continued to defend his 510,000 death toll prediction, even going as far as to call it an ‘underestimation’, arguing that the fatalities would have been much higher had the NHS been overwhelmed by the virus.  

More recent predictions by SAGE have also failed to live up to expectations.

In September SAGE warned there more than 6,000 daily Covid hospital admissions by October due to waning immunity from Covid jabs, schools returning from summer, and workers returning to offices.

In reality the UK saw an average of 1,000 patients admitted to hospital per day during this period. 

SAGE models were also ridiculed this year for estimating there would be 100,000 Covid cases per day over the summer of 2021.

The highest cases ever got over that period was barely above half of that prediction, with 60,760 on July 15. 

How Professor Ferguson’s latest prediction of a potential 5,000 Omicron deaths a day stands up remains to be seen. 

Professor Ferguson’s team did not model scenarios for Britain, instead they offered hypothetical situations for a ‘high-income country with substantial prior transmission and high vaccine access’.

Modellers presented three different scenarios for daily Covid deaths with Omicron, based on its ability to dodge vaccines.

Under the most pessimistic estimate, the team warned of 100 daily deaths per million people for a country that vaccinated the majority of over-10s and gave out boosters to the majority of over-40s – like the UK. 

At the other end of the scale, the figure stood at around 50 per million when the same vaccination calculations were taken into account.

The team’s central projection – which it told MailOnline was its ‘best estimate’ – suggested daily deaths could peak at around 75 per million in early 2022.

That, in theory, suggests Britain could expect to see 5,000 daily deaths – four times the levels seen during the peak of the second wave, before vaccines had really been rolled out. 

But Dr Clive Dix, former Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, was not convinced by the astronomical death numbers in the paper.

He said: ‘It is important not to over interpret this data. The conclusions made are based on making assumptions about omicron where we still don’t have sufficient data.

‘For example, we have no data on the cellular immune response which is now probably driving effectiveness of vaccines. This is a crucial missing assumption in the modelling.

‘Some of their conclusions are different to the data emerging from South Africa in that the vaccines are holding up well against severe disease and death at present.

‘There is a huge amount of uncertainty in these modelled estimates and we can only be confident about the impact of boosters against omicron when we have another month of real world data on hospitalisation ICU numbers and deaths.

‘It remains the case that we still need to get vaccines current and future to the whole world.’

The Imperial study found a significantly increased risk of developing a symptomatic Omicron case compared with Delta with two vaccines or a booster.

Vaccine effectiveness on mild disease was estimated to be around 20 per cent after two doses and between 55 per cent and 80 per cent after a booster dose.    

The scientists used data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and NHS for all PCR-confirmed Covid cases in England who had taken a test between November 29 and December 11 this year to come to the estimates.

The risk of reinfection with Omicron was said to be 5.4 times greater than that of the Delta variant, which Imperial said meant immunity from past infection may be as low as 19 per cent.

Professor Ferguson added: ‘This study provides further evidence of the very substantial extent to which Omicron can evade prior immunity, given by both infection or vaccination.

‘This level of immune evasion means that Omicron poses a major, imminent threat to public health.’ 

The study also found no evidence of Omicron having lower severity than Delta, but data on hospital admission was very low at the time of the study, with only 16 British patients admitted with the strain.

That assessment comes despite a major real-world study on 78,000 South Africans concluding that Omicron is up to 30 per cent milder than older variants and causes a third fewer hospital admissions.

Professor Ghani insisted there was still a great deal of ‘uncertainty’ about Omicron’s severity with more clear-cut data expected in the coming weeks.

‘Whilst it may take several weeks to fully understand this, governments will need to put in place plans now to mitigate any potential impact,’ she said.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has previously called for ‘serious caution’ over interpreting the promising data on Omicron coming from South Africa.

He said the same patterns may not be replicated in the UK in part due to South Africa’s last wave being more recent so population-wide immunity was fresher.

On severe disease, the team at Imperial estimated a booster provides around 81 to 86 per cent protection against hospitalisation and death compared to 96.5 and 97.6 per cent against Delta.

Croydon Health Services Trust has already seen half its critical care beds taken up by Covid patients. Map shows: The top pen worst and least affected hospitals in terms of Covid critical care bed occupancy in the capital

Croydon Health Services Trust has already seen half its critical care beds taken up by Covid patients. Map shows: The top pen worst and least affected hospitals in terms of Covid critical care bed occupancy in the capital

MailOnline’s analysis of NHS England data shows overall Covid hospital bed occupancy in London have jumped by a fifth in the past week, in a possible sign of what Omicron has in store for the capital. Map shows: The top pen worst and least affected hospitals in terms of Covid bed occupancy in the capital

It came as MailOnline analysis showed Covid hospital admissions have spiked by more than a third in a week in Britain’s Omicron hotspot of London. 

The ultra-infectious strain already makes up three-quarters of all new cases in the capital, which yesterday posted 23,000 cases — a record high.

Covid hospital admissions jump by a THIRD in a week in Omicron hotspot London 

Covid hospital admissions have spiked by more than a third in a week in Britain’s Omicron hotspot of London, official data shows amid fears NHS wards could be hit just as badly as they were in the second wave.

The ultra-infectious strain already makes up three-quarters of all new cases in the capital, which yesterday posted 23,000 cases — a record high.

Experts have already called for tighter restrictions to be placed on the city to curb the spread of the virus, which is feared to be doubling every one-and-a-half days. But Tory MPs have urged ministers to rely on the wall of defence built by vaccines.

Hospitalisations have already started to shoot up in the capital, offering a glimpse of what Government advisers fear is in store for the rest of the country. While the trend is increasing in the capital, actual admissions remain low. 

Some 199 infected patients were admitted to wards in London on Tuesday, the most recent day UKHSA figures are available for. This was up 34 per cent on the previous week. For comparison, nearly 1,000 a day were being recorded during the darkest days of the second wave in January.

But admissions are expected to go up even further because of the time it takes for infected people to become severely ill. Cases are skyrocketing across the country and are now going up in over-60s in the capital, who are the most vulnerable to Covid.

NHS England statistics shows eight of London’s worst hit hospitals have seen their number of admissions double over the past week. And Croydon Health Services Trust has already seen half its critical care beds taken up by Covid patients.  

Several trusts in the capital are shelving ‘non-urgent’ procedures, such as hip and knee replacements, as they redeployed doctors and nurses to the frontlines to battle staff shortages.

Experts have already called for tighter restrictions to be placed on the city to curb the spread of the virus, which is feared to be doubling every one-and-a-half days. But Tory MPs have urged ministers to rely on the wall of defence built by vaccines.

Hospitalisations have already started to shoot up in the capital, offering a glimpse of what Government advisers fear is in store for the rest of the country. While the trend is increasing in the capital, actual admissions remain low. 

Some 199 infected patients were admitted to wards in London on Tuesday, the most recent day UKHSA figures are available for. This was up 34 per cent on the previous week. For comparison, nearly 1,000 a day were being recorded during the darkest days of the second wave in January.

But admissions are expected to go up even further because of the time it takes for infected people to become severely ill. Cases are skyrocketing across the country and are now going up in over-60s in the capital, who are the most vulnerable to Covid.

NHS England statistics shows eight of London’s worst hit hospitals have seen their number of admissions double over the past week. And Croydon Health Services Trust has already seen half its critical care beds taken up by Covid patients.  

Several trusts in the capital are shelving ‘non-urgent’ procedures, such as hip and knee replacements, as they redeployed doctors and nurses to the frontlines to battle staff shortages.

MailOnline’s analysis of NHS England data shows overall Covid hospital bed occupancy in London has jumped by a fifth in the past week, in a possible sign of what Omicron has in store for the capital.

Bed occupancy is a different metric to admissions and takes into account discharges, with patients known to be spending less time in hospital now because of the vaccines. It lags slightly behind the UKHSA admission figures.

In total, 990 of the city’s 13,145 beds were occupied by Covid patients on December 14, 7.5 per cent of the total beds available. 

But Homerton University Hospital Foundation Trust, in the east of the capital, saw the biggest spike in demand, with the number of beds taken up by Covid patients doubling from 15 to 32.

Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust also saw the raw number of occupied beds double, going to 57 from 27.

Some of the capital’s biggest hospitals are also seeing rises in Covid patients. Barts Health Trust, which serves 2.6million people, saw a nearly 22 per cent rise to 112. 

But the NHS is under strain because of standard winter pressures and a backlog of demand built up through the pandemic, meaning it has less safety room to deal with a Covid surge.

Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases showed that less than two per cent of patients were being hospitalised in the second week of the Omicron wave in South Africa. For comparison, when the Delta wave struck it was 12 per cent

Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases showed that less than two per cent of patients were being hospitalised in the second week of the Omicron wave in South Africa. For comparison, when the Delta wave struck it was 12 per cent

Daily Covid cases in South Africa have risen 10 per cent in a week today. But the country is currently enjoying a public holiday, which likely skewed the figures

Daily Covid cases in South Africa have risen 10 per cent in a week today. But the country is currently enjoying a public holiday, which likely skewed the figures

Hospitalisations in the country fell 23.4 per cent in a week today after another 374 people were admitted. But this could also be down to the holiday, with fewer people available to process data

Hospitalisations in the country fell 23.4 per cent in a week today after another 374 people were admitted. But this could also be down to the holiday, with fewer people available to process data

And the rapid spread of Omicron has led to a spike in staff absences, piling pressure on an already over-stretched workforce. 

Two hospitals in London claimed to have no available beds at all, meaning they are already unable to cope with any more patients ahead of the predicted surge in demand in the coming weeks.  

Hope for Britain? 11 TIMES fewer Covid patients in Omicron-ravaged South Africa are now being admitted to hospital than during summer Delta wave 

Eleven times fewer patients diagnosed with Covid in Omicron-stricken South Africa are being admitted to hospital now than in the summer, experts claimed today.

The country’s health minister Joe Phaahla revealed 1.7 per cent of Covid cases went on to be hospitalised during the second week of the current wave. For comparison, he said the equivalent figure was 19 per cent in the second week of South Africa’s Delta crisis.

Mr Phaahla also told a press conference there were early indications that ‘the peak has been reached’ in Gauteng, which was first to feel the full force of the variant.

The province’s daily infections have started to trend downwards, about three weeks after the ultra-infectious variant took hold.

Higher immunity levels due to vaccination and previous infection now than when Delta took off are thought to be behind the lower hospitalisation rate.

But Mr Phaahla suggested Omicron may have evolved to be milder, bolstering claims made by doctors treating patients on the frontline.

Public health official Wassila Jassat, who also attended the conference, said South Africa had fewer patients needing oxygen now than when Delta emerged. She added that patients were hospitalised for a shorter period.

It is the latest glimmer of hope for Britain that Omicron may be milder than first feared, suggesting that its rapid rise won’t cripple the health service in the coming weeks – despite gloomy projections.

But Professor Chris Whitty has warned against making comparisons between the two countries, pointing out that a far larger proportion of South Africa’s population is young and less vulnerable compared to the UK.

North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust and The Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust reported zero unoccupied beds this week.

Hospital bosses across the country have already been told to discharge as many patients who don’t ‘need’ a bed as ‘soon as practically possible’. They should be sent to care homes, hospices and hotels if it is ‘safe’ to do so.

Hospitals are on red alert in the wake of modelling by No10’s scientists that warned admissions could exceed levels seen during the darkest days of the nation’s second wave last January, when 4,000 infected patients were needing medical care every day. 

Nurses are being flown in from Spain and Greece to offer temporary assistance at hotels that are being converted into care sites over Christmas to help deal with the oncoming crisis, it was also revealed today. 

Separate data also shows a fifth of London’s critical care beds are already occupied by Covid patients, with some hospitals also reporting they have none of these beds currently available. 

While critical care bed uptake by Covid patients is down four per cent across the capital, some hospitals are becoming overrun with virus patients. 

Croydon Health Services NHS Trust is the worst hit so far, with eight of its 16 critical care beds occupied by Covid patients, a 33 per cent rise on last week.

Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is in a similar situation, with six of its 13 beds taken up by Covid patients, but this is a 14 per cent decrease on last week. 

And North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust was the only hospital with zero critical care beds available this week.

Others were not far behind with eight reporting having fewer than five of these beds available. 

As fears about a UK-wide lockdown mount, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has not ruled out adding more Covid restrictions after Christmas, as he said there ‘won’t be any parties at nightclubs on New Year’s Eve’.

He announced new legal measures that will come into force on December 27, to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

Mr Drakeford urged people to downsize their festive plans, saying his own celebrations would be ‘modest’.

The rules to be introduced in 10 days are taken from the country’s Alert level 2, and include bringing back social distancing, barriers and one-way systems in businesses.

The Welsh Government said the plan currently does not include restrictions on private households.

But Mr Drakeford said restricting the number of households allowed to meet remains a possibility, and hinted at the prospect of further restrictions in hospitality settings after Christmas, such as the ‘rule of six’. 

‘I’m hopeful that hospitality will reopen after Christmas and we’ll be working with the sector to think about the terms on which it will reopen,’ Mr Drakeford said.

‘People are already voting with their feet and cancelling arrangements because they are anxious about Omicron.

‘It may be that when hospitality reopens we may need to put some extra protections in place so that people feel confident when they go out to a pub or a restaurant, then everything is being done to make sure they are safe.’ 

No nightclub parties for New Year, says Welsh First Minister as Scotland warns Omicron ‘tsunami´ is beginning to hit Scotland

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has not ruled out adding more Covid restrictions after Christmas, as he said there ‘won’t be any parties at nightclubs on New Year’s Eve’.

He announced new legal measures that will come into force on December 27, to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

Mr Drakeford urged people to downsize their festive plans, saying his own celebrations would be ‘modest’.

The rules to be introduced in 10 days are taken from the country’s Alert level 2, and include bringing back social distancing, barriers and one-way systems in businesses.

The Welsh Government said the plan currently does not include restrictions on private households.

But Mr Drakeford said restricting the number of households allowed to meet remains a possibility, and hinted at the prospect of further restrictions in hospitality settings after Christmas, such as the ‘rule of six’. 

‘I’m hopeful that hospitality will reopen after Christmas and we’ll be working with the sector to think about the terms on which it will reopen,’ Mr Drakeford said.

‘People are already voting with their feet and cancelling arrangements because they are anxious about Omicron.

‘It may be that when hospitality reopens we may need to put some extra protections in place so that people feel confident when they go out to a pub or a restaurant, then everything is being done to make sure they are safe.’

Meanwhile, Omicron is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon said as she warned a ‘tsunami’ of the variant is hitting the country.

The First Minister said 51.4% of Covid-19 cases in Scotland are now likely to be Omicron.

The R number, which measures the rate of infection, could be above four and cases of the virus have increased by more than 40% in the past week, the First Minister said during a coronavirus briefing.

She urged people to stay at home in the run-up to Christmas, saying the emergence of Omicron has been the ‘cruellest of blows’.

‘The tsunami I warned about a week ago is now starting to hit us,’ she said.

‘However, and this is a key point, a really key point actually, we shouldn’t be fatalistic about this. We are not powerless in the face of it.’

The First Minister said it ‘seems that boosters are still very effective in reducing the risk of falling seriously ill from Omicron’.

She said it is expected the increase in cases will ‘continue and accelerate’, and stressed the need to slow down the spread of the virus, adding: ‘As of now the scale and the immediacy of the challenge it presents is of profound concern.’

Omicron-infected Brits are THREE TIMES more likely to give virus to people they live with than with Delta – as data shows 6% of all UK’s confirmed cases are reinfections

by Joe Davies for MailOnline 

Omicron-infected Brits are three times as likely to spread Covid to someone they live with as those with Delta, Government scientists revealed today.

Household transmission is already the main driver of the pandemic, with up to 43 per cent of all infection believed to be caused by family members in the home.  

The UK Health Security Agency said the super mutant strain, which today officially became dominant in the UK, has an even bigger ‘transmission advantage’.

Of the 777 confirmed Omicron cases up to December 12 in England, some 140 household members (18 per cent) would be infected by the strain, the UKHSA said. 

The report also showed six per cent of all confirmed cases of the variant in the UK are reinfections, with Government modelling estimating the strain is five-and-a-half times more likely to reinfect than Delta.

Some 305 of the 5,153 people with a confirmed or probable case of Omicron recorded between November 1 and December 11 were connected to a previous confirmed infection and were at least 90 days from previously testing positive.

Meanwhile, it showed the group with the highest infections of the strain as of December 12 in England was women in their 20s.  

A UK Health Security Agency report showed six per cent of all confirmed cases of the variant in the UK are reinfections. Of 5,153 people with a confirmed or probable case of Omicron recorded between November 1 and December 11, 305 were connected to a previous confirmed infection and were at least 90 days from previously testing positive. Graph shows: The weekly rate of possible reinfections in England (blue line)

A UK Health Security Agency report showed six per cent of all confirmed cases of the variant in the UK are reinfections. Of 5,153 people with a confirmed or probable case of Omicron recorded between November 1 and December 11, 305 were connected to a previous confirmed infection and were at least 90 days from previously testing positive. Graph shows: The weekly rate of possible reinfections in England (blue line)

Meanwhile it showed the group with the highest infections of the strain as of December 12 in England was women in their 20s

Meanwhile it showed the group with the highest infections of the strain as of December 12 in England was women in their 20s

Graph shows: Confirmed Omicron cases by travel status in England up to December 12. Most cases in the country were initially from abroad (green) although this was quickly overtaken by domestic cases (pink), with the majority now in people with unknown traveller status (purple)

Graph shows: Confirmed Omicron cases by travel status in England up to December 12. Most cases in the country were initially from abroad (green) although this was quickly overtaken by domestic cases (pink), with the majority now in people with unknown traveller status (purple)

Graph shows: Omicron cases by region in England up to December 12. London (light blue) makes up the majority of all confirmed infections of the variant

Graph shows: Omicron cases by region in England up to December 12. London (light blue) makes up the majority of all confirmed infections of the variant

Women made up 789 of all infections, 50 per cent more than men in the age group (523) and more than double any other group other than women (419) and men (418) in their 30s.

The variant has caused cases to spiral across the UK, with infections now also rising in those in their 60s in the Omicron epicentre London. 

The proof lateral flows ARE just as good at catching Omicron? 

Lateral flow tests used in the UK identify Omicron with just as much accuracy as previous strains, UK Government scientists insisted today.

Experts said they hope the results will allay concerns the devices are less sensitive to the mutant strain. 

As cases have soared in recent days, scores of Britons have complained about testing negative on lateral flows, only to be told they are positive by a PCR.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) used the five lateral flow testing brands dished out by the NHS on samples from patients infected with Omicron. 

All of the tests showed a positive result for each patient, even when their sample was diluted, showing the devices have ‘a comparable sensitivity to that observed for previous strains’ of Covid, the UKHSA said.

However, it is monitoring how well the tests perform in the real world to ensure their sensitivity is not ‘significantly reduced’ when people swab themselves.

The tests, which can tell if someone is infected in as little as 15 minutes, report positive results by detecting the virus’s nucleocapsid protein. 

But this part of Omicron’s cell has four mutations, which raised concerns that the test could be less effective. 

But Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive at the UKHSA, said the laboratory results are ‘very encouraging’ and urged people to use the tests before mixing with others to limit the spread of the virus.

The free tests are a key part of No10’s Plan B strategy, with vaccinated close contacts of positive cases told to use them daily for a week instead of isolating. 

Unvaccinated people must show proof of having a negative result to enter football stadiums.

Wales today announced new restrictions, with Mark Drakeford announcing a crackdown on social gatherings and closures of nightclubs from Boxing Day, while Scots are being urged to limit mixing to three households and people in England are advised to ‘prioritise’ social events.

Gloomy modelling from ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson today suggested there could be 5,000 Covid deaths a day this winter without more restrictions.  

The UKHSA studied 116,186 Covid cases from November 15 to December 6, of which 115,407 were Delta and 777 were Omicron.

Overall, 18 per cent of Omicron cases caused another infection in people living in the same household, compared to 10 per cent of Delta cases.

Statistical modelling determined the risk of spreading the strain to another household member is 2.9 times higher for Omicron than it was for Delta.

The data was adjusted for age, sex, race, geography, infection date, number of household contacts and vaccination status.

But the experts said more data is necessary to draw stronger conclusions, adding they would repeat the analysis in future once more cases of the variant have been picked up. 

The report said: ‘A multivariable logistic regression model found the adjusted odds ratio for household transmission from an Omicron index case was 2.9 compared to Delta index cases. 

‘These preliminary findings suggest that the Omicron variant has a transmission advantage compared to Delta. 

‘However, this analysis may be affected by increased ascertainment of Omicron cases. The analysis will be iterated to improve precision.’

The report also suggest Omicron is causing ‘an increase in overall reinfection rates, alongside an increase in first infections’.

The ages of the cases linked with a previous infection ranged from six to 68 years old, while there were four people for whom Omicron was their third episode of infection. 

And it found that lateral flow (LFD) tests are as likely to detect Omicron as other variants of coronavirus. 

Dr Jenny Harries, HSA’s chief executive, said: ‘Our data shows that LFD tests are similarly able to detect Covid-19 in individuals who have been exposed to Omicron as in those exposed to previous variants. This is very encouraging.

‘As we all work to limit the high levels of transmission of this variant over the Christmas period, we are urging people to test regularly, particularly before attending social gatherings.

‘As always, the booster vaccine remains the best protection against infection. Please come forward to receive your booster as soon as possible.’

Meanwhile, a separate study by Imperial College London released today showed the risk of reinfection with Omicron is 5.4 times greater than that of the Delta variant.

This suggests the protection against reinfection by Omicron from past infection may be as low as 19 per cent.

The study also found no evidence of Omicron having lower severity than Delta, but data on hospital admission was very low at the time of the study.

According to the data, boosters are vital in controlling Omicron, but they may lose some effectiveness over time.

Researchers estimated the proportion of Omicron among all Covid cases between November 29 and December 11 was doubling every two  days up to December 11.

Based on this they also estimate the reproduction number (R) of Omicron was above 3, over the period studied.

Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London said: ‘This study provides further evidence of the very substantial extent to which Omicron can evade prior immunity, given by both infection or vaccination.

‘This level of immune evasion means that Omicron poses a major, imminent threat to public health.’

There is significantly increased risk of developing a symptomatic Omicron case compared with Delta for those who were two or more weeks past their second vaccine dose, and two or more weeks past their booster dose (for AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines), the report found.

Depending on vaccine effectiveness estimates against symptomatic infection from the Delta variant, this translates into vaccine effectiveness estimates against symptomatic Omicron infection of between zero per cent and 20 per cent after two doses, and between 55 per cent and 80 per cent after a booster dose.

The scientists used data from the UKHSA and NHS for all PCR-confirmed Covid cases in England who had taken a test between November 29 and December 11 this year.

Professor Azra Ghani, from Imperial College London, said: ‘Given the rapid spread of the Omicron variant to date, it is now highly likely that this will replace the circulating Delta variant globally in the coming weeks.

‘Emerging immunogenicity data clearly point to substantial reductions in neutralising antibodies, whilst preliminary vaccine efficacy estimates demonstrate a substantial reduction in protection from mild disease.

‘Our estimates suggest that this is likely to translate into small but important reductions in efficacy against severe disease and death.

‘One remaining uncertainty is how severe the disease caused by the Omicron variant is compared to disease caused by previous variants.’ 

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