Omicron ‘the most significant threat of pandemic’, warns UK health chief as cases surge

Covid: Dr Jenny Harries discusses risk of flu

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The warning from Dr Jenny Harries, chief of UKHSA comes amid warnings over a coming surge in hospitalisations. On Wednesday, Dr Jenny told the Commons transport select committee that it was still too early to judge the potential risk of the new Covid variant and warned that the virus was “growing faster”.

She also warned MPs to expect a “staggering” growth rate over the coming days.

Dr Harries said: “It’s probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic and I’m sure for example the numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we’ve seen in cases for previous variants.

“The real potential risk here – and I would underline that because we are still learning a lot about the variant – is in relation to its severity, clinical severity, and therefore whether those cases turn into severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths.

“We’re still at too early stage for that. In fact, the world probably is still at too early stage to be clear.”

The statement came just hours after the head of the NHS in England said the increase in Omicron infections could lead to a higher number of Covid patients being hospitalised than at the peak of the pandemic.

Currently, the seven-day rolling average for daily admissions in England is 752.

However, Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of NHS England, told MPs that hospitalisations could exceed the numbers seen last winter.

The record high was 3,812 on 9 January.

Giving evidence to the public accounts committee, Pritchard said NHS staff were racing to expand the booster vaccine rollout “whilst also preparing for a potential significant wave of hospitalisations”.

She added: “We don’t know what’s going to happen.

“But at the moment the indications are it could be as big or even bigger than the previous wave this time last year.

“So we’re preparing for that.”

The NHS has been put on a crisis footing with hospitals in England told to discharge as many patients as possible in order to free up beds for a potential flood of Covid patients.

Dr Harries said that in most regions of the UK the doubling time of the virus was now “under two days” and that its growth rate was being felt in London and Manchester in particular.

She added: “We’re very sure there are levels growing across most communities in the UK now, although there is quite a lot of regional variation still.”

On Wednesday, the UKHSA and Royal Mail announced that capacity for home deliveries for Covid-19 testing kits would double to 900,000 a day in response to a week of unprecedented demand, amid soaring numbers of coronavirus infections.

The UKSHA chief said demand for lateral flow tests has been “absolutely astounding” and that between 6am and 8am on Wednesday alone, the public ordered 200,000 packs.

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The NHS is also experiencing “unprecedented demand” for PCR tests, according to Dr Harries.

She said there was capacity for about 650,000 PCR tests a day but that demand varied depending on location.

She continued: “People can still order tests at home, and we have put in mobile testing units to try and boost those supplies so people can get tested.

“So we do have sufficient tests both for PCR and LFTs. But the very rapid rise is causing some temporary pressure.”

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