Staggering rate Omicron cases will rise – and the ‘next wave’ is coming

Covid-19: Sajid Javid asks public to 'follow rules' at Christmas

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Health Secretary Sajid Javid has confirmed the new coronavirus variant was being transmitted “across multiple regions” of the UK at the community level, rather than being imported-only. Omicron is fast on its way to becoming the dominant variant in the UK, scientists say, overtaking the current Delta variant.

Epidemiologists believe Omicron variant infections are now doubling every three days, and the variant will become the dominant UK strain in “weeks rather than months”.

Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, who sits on the government’s Nervtag advisory group, said that a useful early measure of Omicron cases “suggests a doubling time of three days or less”.

Sajid Javid has acknowledged that, while the variant is likely more transmissible than the Delta variant, it is too early to say if this will “knock us off our road to recovery”.

Mr Javid told Parliament the Government was “leaving nothing to chance” while scientists assessed the variant, which was first reported in South Africa last month.

He said there are now 261 confirmed Omicron cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales – a total of 336.

The Health Secretary added: “This includes cases with no links to international travel, so we can conclude there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday no further restrictions were currently needed to deal with the Omicron variant, but refused to rule out imposing such measures before Christmas.

But experts have said the restrictions already imposed – largely centred on travel – are pointless and won’t stop the variant from spreading.

Several southern African countries have been placed on the UK’s ‘red list’, and all passengers arriving in the UK will have to take a pre-departure Covid test under new rules designed to slow the spread of Omicron.

Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said the move was too late to make a “material difference”.

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I think that may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

“If Omicron is here in the UK, and it certainly is, if there’s community transmission in the UK, and it certainly looks that way, then it’s that community transmission that will drive a next wave.

“The cases that are being imported are important, we want to detect those and isolate any positive cases we find, as we would for any case anywhere.

“But I think it’s too late to make a material difference to the course of the Omicron wave if we’re going to have one.”

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Prof Woolhouse added that, despite the threat posed by the variant, vaccines would still be “very, very good” against it.

He said: “Vaccinologists and immunologists think that this variant won’t evade the vaccines entirely.
“It’s important to remember that against the Delta variant, which is a different variant, the booster vaccinations have turned out to be very effective, well into the 90 percent protection against infection but also against disease and putting people in hospital.

“So even if the vaccines were slightly less effective against Omicron they would still be very, very good.”

A South African health researcher has said early data suggests the new variant is highly transmissible, but that it has a less than once percent chance of re-infection and typically results in “milder” disease.

Also speaking to Andrew Marr, Prof Willem Hanekom, the director of the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa, said: “We know three things that we didn’t know last week, the first thing is that the virus is spreading extraordinarily fast in South Africa, the increase in cases is much steeper than it’s been in the past three waves so it seems that Omicron is able to spread very easily and virtually all the cases that we see in South Africa right now are Omicron.

“The second thing we have data on is reinfections, so as you know, after you’ve had Covid you have about a one percent chance, or perhaps even less than a one percent chance, of getting reinfected and even getting the disease again, of course, by this virus.

“The third little bit of data we have already relates to clinical cases and how severe the disease is.

“The only data suggests the disease may occur more in younger people and mostly younger people who are unvaccinated and overall so far the disease has appeared to be milder but again I want to say we have to be cautious. These are very early days.”

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