Chris Whitty: Omicron is likely to ‘peak quite fast’

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He told MPs there could be a sharp spike in cases with the supercharged variant – which currently has an R number between three and five. Prof Whitty described it as “a ­hairpin bend put in our way”. He said it will then slow due to the impact of people taking ­precautions and rising immunity from boosters.

Infections may even fall more ­rapidly than in previous waves, but Prof Whitty stressed there was a lot of uncertainty about how much ­pressure this would put on the NHS.

He said: “What we will see with this, and we’re seeing it in South Africa, is that the upswing will be incredibly fast even if people are ­taking more cautious actions.

“It’ll probably therefore peak really quite fast. My anticipation is it may then come down faster than previous peaks, but I wouldn’t want to say that for sure. The rate of increase is going to be fairly impressive.”

The assessment came as the UK reported a record number of Covid cases for a second consecutive day, with 88,376. There were 146 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. And the rise of Omicron has seen the number of people in hospital in London rise by 26 percent in a week, according to Government figures.

They showed 1,460 patients in the capital on December 16, an increase of 297 people from a week earlier.

However, the booster drive delivered more than 745,000 doses on Wednesday – also a new record and signals the pace needed to reach eligible adults by the end of the month.

Britain has now dished out more than 25 million booster jabs or third doses, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson visiting a vaccination centre in Ramsgate, Kent, yesterday.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We have no time to waste. Today’s milestone of 25 million top-up jabs is a testament to the enthusiasm of people up and down the country rolling up their sleeves to get boosted now.”

Giving evidence to MPs on the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, Prof Whitty stressed there were still uncertainties around highly-infectious Omicron.

Experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine warned admissions could peak at double the numbers seen last January. But Prof Whitty said he was “extremely cautious” about such modelling, adding: “There are some really critical things we don’t know.

“We don’t know at what level it’s going to peak. And we do not yet know what the effects, in terms of hospitalisations, of two doses of ­vaccine, of prior infection and of a booster dose are.

“There is still debate about whether this is a milder version.”

The expert medic said it was ­possible that even if Omicron causes lesser ill-effects, it could lead to more hospital admissions because the rise in cases is so sharp.

On the other hand, if vaccines hold up against severe disease, patients may spend less time in hospital, with fewer admissions to intensive care.

Prof Whitty said these uncertainties made it difficult to decide whether stronger restrictions are needed.

He said: “To make really tough economic and social decisions, there are some really key bits of information we do not yet have. If it becomes clearer things are heading the wrong way, ministers are always going to take constant reviews of this.”

Prof Whitty offered hope the UK would not become trapped in a cycle of life being disrupted by new ­variants and that it was still in ­transition in living with Covid.

He said: “This is rather like a hairpin bend that has been put in our way. We were cruising along at a ­reasonable speed, we have now got to slow right down and go around it. We’ve got to get ourselves back on track with the boosters and accelerate out again.”

He ­suggested within 18 months, polyvalent vaccines should be available to tackle multiple strains, much like the flu jab. This, combined with antiviral drugs and medical developments, could do the “heavy lifting”.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for the UK Health Security Agency, told the committee more would be known about the severity of Omicron and jab effectiveness once around 250 people are in hospital.

Dr Hopkins said: “The earliest we will have reliable data is the week between Christmas and New Year, and probably early January.”

Meanwhile, England’s chief nurse Ruth May urged colleagues to drive the booster rollout as Eddie Gray, chair of the UK Antivirals Taskforce, confirmed two antiviral drugs were expected to be available this winter.

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