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New data suggesting Omicron may be less likely to lead to serious illness than the Delta variant of coronavirus offers a “glimmer of Christmas hope”, a senior health official has said.
But UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief executive Dr Jenny Harries warned that it is too early to downgrade the threat from the new strain, which is still spreading rapidly across the UK.
Dr Harries told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that more information is needed, particularly about the impact on elderly and more vulnerable patients.
She added: “There is a glimmer of Christmas hope in the findings that we published yesterday, but it definitely isn’t yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat.”
The UKHSA estimates that someone with Omicron is between 31% and 45% less likely to attend A&E and 50% to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital than an individual with the Delta variant.
The rapid spread of Omicron has seen it become the “dominant strain now right across the UK”, and Dr Harries said cases are still doubling across “most regions” of the country.
She added: “What we have got now is a really fine balance between something that looks like a lower risk of hospitalisation – which is great news – but equally a highly transmissible variant and one that we know evades some of our immune defences, so it is a very balanced position.”
The UKHSA data has fuelled speculation in Westminster that further restrictions can be avoided in England after Christmas.
In Scotland, nightclubs will close for at least three weeks from December 27 as part of a package of measures to control the spread of the virus, while clubs in Wales and Northern Ireland will close from Boxing Day.
But in England the Government may choose to issue new guidance on limiting contacts rather than risk another damaging Tory rebellion by recalling Parliament to impose new rules.
The health agency’s analysis came as the UK experienced yet another record-breaking number of daily reported Covid cases, with 119,789 reported as of 9am on Thursday.
This was the second day in the whole of the pandemic that daily lab-confirmed case rates were above 100,000, after Wednesday.
But Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned that Omicron still has the potential to overwhelm the NHS despite the “promising” data because it is more infectious than past variants.
The head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) told BBC Breakfast the Government may have left it “too late” to protect the NHS against the Omicron wave unless it heeds the advice of scientific experts on tighter restrictions.
Pat Cullen said: “We need to listen to the wonderful scientific experts that we have throughout the country.
“We listened to them yesterday evening and many evenings on TV and what (they are) saying that something needs to happen in terms of perhaps a circuit breaker, and that if we leave it much longer unfortunately our nurses fear it will be a little bit too late for the health service.”
Dr Harries said key pieces of information about Omicron are still needed to understand how much of a risk it poses to the health service, such as average length of stay in hospital.
She added: “We’re not seeing very significant rises in intensive care utilisation or in the use of ventilation beds.
“Now that may be because a lot of the people who’ve been infected to date are actually younger people and we will see that coming through.”
But if the severity of the disease is actually “significantly lower than Delta”, then some of the impact on the NHS may be less severe, she said.
On 23 December, 119,789 new cases and 147 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were reported across the UK.
— UK Health Security Agency (@UKHSA) December 23, 2021
Dr Harries also suggested the Government might consider whether new restrictions are needed in England based on the wider impact of the Omicron wave, rather than just the severity of the illness.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not imposed any further restrictions for England over Christmas, but has indicated he will not hesitate to act afterwards – with Monday expected to be the first opportunity to consider if changes are needed.
Asked whether the Government will have the information on Monday to make key decisions, Dr Harries said: “Ministers will look at all of the data that we have available and that isn’t simply what the epidemiology is saying, it’s how it’s impacting society.
“So, for example, we have very high rates of individuals off sick – we know that particularly in London, around one in 35 have currently got Omicron.
“Now that’s having an impact on the workforce. So these are not simply about hospitalisation rates.”
She added that ministers are being kept updated on a daily basis and that will continue throughout the Christmas period.
“I don’t think we do know yet that this is going to be a significantly less serious disease for the population – the older population – that we are normally most concerned about in relation to serious disease and death,” she said.
Her comments came after Mr Johnson used his Christmas message to urge people to come forward to get a Covid booster jab as part of the “neighbourly” spirit of the season.
In his message to the nation released on Friday, the Prime Minister said: “Though the time for buying presents is theoretically running out, there is still a wonderful thing you can give your family and the whole country, and that is to get that jab, whether it is your first or second, or your booster.”
He added: “We have been getting that vaccination that protects us and stops us infecting others.
“And I hope I can be forgiven for taking pride in the immense spirit of neighbourliness that the people of this country have shown.
“Getting jabbed not just for themselves, for ourselves, but for friends and family and everyone we meet.”
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also used her Christmas message to urge people to get vaccinated, describing the booster campaign as “a source of brightness during a really difficult month”.
In Northern Ireland, DUP leader and Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that Covid “should not be under-estimated” as he isolates with the infection.
The UKHSA has emphasised that its findings regarding the severity of Omicron are “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small numbers of confirmed cases currently in hospital.
In its analysis the agency also found around one in 10 new cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus identified in England have been linked with a previous infection of Covid-19.
Vaccination is also believed to give less protection against Omicron, although a booster jab provides more protection against symptomatic disease compared with the first two doses alone.
Data suggests protection starts to wane 10 weeks after booster vaccination, the agency said.
Meanwhile, a slew of new data underlined the pressures facing the NHS.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated 1.4 million people in the UK had the virus in the week ending December 16, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020.
New figures from NHS England showed one in five patients waited at least half an hour to be handed over from ambulance teams to A&E staff at hospitals in England last week.
Across England as a whole, 18,829 NHS staff at acute hospital trusts were absent due to reasons relating to coronavirus on December 19, up 54% from 12,240 a week earlier and up 51% from 12,508 at the start of the month.
In Wales and Scotland meanwhile, extra military personnel are being drafted in to help ambulance services struggling with a high number of staff absences due to Covid.