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England has recorded the highest number of children admitted to hospital with COVID since the start of the pandemic, new figures show.
According to government figures, 65 under-18s were admitted to hospital with COVID on 12 December. Of those 65 admissions, more than half (34) were five years old or younger.
It comes amid fears that hospitals could become overwhelmed in the coming weeks by the Omicron variant with warnings of a "staggering number of cases" in the days ahead.
The figures come amid some concern over the spread of the new variant, including possible indications that it poses an increased risk to children.
A large number of infants were admitted with COVID last month in Tshwane, South Africa, raising concerns that Omicron could pose greater risks for young children than other variants.
However there is currently no evidence to suggest this is the case and scientists have yet to confirm any link, cautioning that other factors could be at play.
On Tuesday night, MPs voted in favour of COVID passes for entry into nightclubs and other venues in a bid to stem the spread of Omicron. Face coverings have also been made compulsory in most indoor public venues, as well as on public transport, and people have been told to work from home if they can.
The measures have been taken after alarming warnings about the impact Omicron could have on the NHS.
Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned on Wednesday that the health service could be overwhelmed by next month.
He said that even if the new variant proved milder than Delta, the sheer volume of infections meant the total impact on the NHS could be severe, with "the number of people being admitted to hospital getting very large".
Staff shortages caused by nurses and doctors needing to self-isolate could also have a major impact.
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told MPs on Wednesday: "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 impact of Omicron children on children remains unclear, and experts have warned against assuming that the situation in South Africa will be replicated in the UK.
However, at the weekend, South African public health specialist Ntsakisi Maluleke said that out of the 1,511 COVID-positive patients in hospitals in the province, 113 were under nine years old, a greater proportion than during previous waves of infection.
But she added that the variant should not prompt panic as infections have been mild.
She said: ”We are comforted by clinicians' reports that the children have mild disease.”
Watch: Minister confirms rapid increase of Omicron infections in UK
Evidence from South Africa appears to suggest that children appear to be at a 20% greater risk of hospitalisation with Omicron than with the Delta variant.
However, Maluleke said healthcare workers could be acting out of caution, adding: "They would rather have a child under care for a day or two than having a child at home and complicating… but we really need to wait for the evidence.”
On Tuesday a new study, based on preliminary data from the first three weeks of the Omicron surge in South Africa, suggested that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab makes vaccinated people 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital compared with those who are unvaccinated.
This is lower than the 93% protection the jabs gave during the Delta wave, but still offers a good degree of protection.
Overall, adults infected with Omicron were 29% less likely to need hospital care compared with earlier variants, the study found.
Younger age groups were slightly less likely to go to hospital than older people, though experts think this may be due to waning immunity in older people who were given their vaccines first.
The study was in a population where most had had a previous COVID infection – as high as 70% of people in some areas of Gauteng province.
On Tuesday night, 369 MPs backed a move to introduce vaccine passports under the government’s Plan B measures to tackle Omicron.
However, nearly a third of Tory MPs voted against the measure, with many saying they were unhappy about the way Boris Johnson was leading the country and his party.
Some 126 MPs voted against the regulations – including 99 Conservatives.
Other measures under the government’s Plan B also cleared the Commons, including to drop the requirement to isolate and instead do daily COVID tests for those fully vaccinated people who are contacts of a positive COVID case.
The government has not ruled out further restrictions in the coming weeks if cases of Omicron continue to rise.
All adults in England are now being offered a COVID booster as the health service ramps up its vaccination programme to combat a potential rise in hospitalisations.
On Tuesday, almost 60,000 new COVID cases were reported, the highest total since 9 January, driven by the surge in the highly-transmissible variant.
Watch: Moderna 'confident' jab will protect against Omicron