Britain ‘still in Omicron danger zone’ despite good news on severity, warns Prof Andrew Hayward

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  • Andrew Hayward
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Top scientist issues warning on Omicron despite studies showing strain is milder than Delta.  (PA)
Top scientist issues warning on Omicron despite studies showing strain is milder than Delta. (PA)

Britain is not yet out of the “danger zone” from the Omicron surge despite studies showing the variant has a milder impact on many people, a leading scientist has warned.

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), welcomed the research as “undeniably good news”.

However, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are definitely not out of the danger zone.

“Perhaps we can downgrade this from a hurricane to a very severe storm.”

Prof Hayward, of University College London, added: “If you have got a halving of severity but in the context of case numbers of Omicron doubling every two or three days that does not buy you much extra time...maybe less than a week in terms of relieving the pressure on the NHS.

“The NHS is already immensely overstretched and I think that is just going to get worse.”

The UK recorded more than 100,000 Covid cases on Wednesday.

Ministers are scrutinising data as it comes in to see if the surge is continuing at an exponential rate, with cases doubling in some regions in less than two days, or showing signs of slowing.

However, they are not expected to announce any new restrictions before Christmas.

Prof Hayward also emphasised that it was not yet clear what the reduction in severity of the impact of Omicron would be in elderly people as the studies had mainly looked at younger individuals with the disease.

The infectious disease expert also believes if further Covid measures were enforced in England they would not be “the sort of prolonged periods of restrictions that we were talking about before”.

He said: “I think the speed with which this is going up probably means that it’s relatively fast up, fast down”.

However, he also warned that if more restrictions were needed to keep a lid on the Omicron wave “the longer we wait with that, the harder it gets and the less we can influence the size of that peak”.

Prof Hayward said that in previous waves of Covid-19, transmission started with young adults and then “moved up through the age groups”, and so it was “unrealistic” to think there could be a “huge spike” amongst young adults without reaching elderly and more vulnerable adults, as he cautioned people to avoid big parties over the festive period.

Events such as “mass parties” that might take place on New Year’s Eve would “provide a big further boost” to the Omicron variant.

“We still need to be cautious about Christmas - I think in many ways the best present you could provide an elderly relative this year is the negative lateral flow before you go,” he added.

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the REACT-1 programme and chair in epidemiology and public health medicine at Imperial College London whose research suggests Omicron’s impact may be milder than Delta for many people, echoed the plea for caution, stressing the nation is enduring “unprecedented levels of infection”.

He described it as “encouraging news” that the Omicron infection when you get it might be less severe in terms of hospital cases.

But he added: “Of course, with this very very rapid rise and increase in cases - and we have seen the national cases go above 100,000 - then more cases means more pressure (on the health service).

“Even though a smaller proportion (of people) might get severe disease or go into hospital, that could still result in many cases and, of course, that could give pressure on the health service.”

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