COVID-19: Puzzling disconnect between government scientists' dire Omicron warnings and their advice to public

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  • Chris Whitty
    British physician and epidemiologist

There is a puzzling disconnect between the dire warnings from government scientists over the threat from Omicron - and their advice to the public on what they should do to minimise the risk.

The chief medical officer is firm in his belief that the NHS could face the highest peak yet in COVID admissions - at the same time as huge numbers of staff are absent because of the disease.

And yet, appearing before MPs on the Health Select Committee, Professor Chris Whitty once again held back on any prescriptive advice over our festive plans.

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All he will say is that we should prioritise our social interactions.

If that means a Christmas party or a football match is important to you, then go for it, he says.

It's an odd one.

Omicron is highly transmissible and there is plenty of evidence that large gatherings can become super-spreader events.

In Norway, a Christmas party resulted in at least 140 people developing COVID, almost certainly due to Omicron, despite being double vaccinated and reporting negative lateral flow tests before attending.

The fear is that Omicron is more airborne, so one person can spread the virus around a room more easily.

In Scotland, the advice to the public is much clearer: limit contact in the run up to Christmas to three households at any one time.

It's advice, not a rule.

But it gives people a clear marker of what is considered to be socially responsible in the face of an outbreak that is doubling in size every two days.

Although it was the first minister who urged people to scale back, it would have been Nicola Sturgeon's scientific advisers behind it.

Prof Whitty, though, puts his trust in the public to do the sensible thing and make good judgements for themselves.

If he's right, and people do radically alter their behaviour by choice, then Omicron will be reined in without imposing further legal restrictions that would infuriate some Conservative MPs.

If he's wrong, and the virus continues to spread at full throttle, then the NHS can expect sharply rising admissions, even if the virus generally causes milder symptoms.

The danger is that with such a rapid rise in cases the fate of the NHS can be baked in before the government has time to act.

And at the moment there just isn't much data that helps anyone predict with any certainty which way the Omicron wave is going to go.

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