The decision on whether to impose post-Christmas coronavirus restrictions in England will be made based on "the wider impact on society", not just hospitalisations, a top doctor said on Friday.
UK Health Security Agency chief Jenny Harries suggested the government might consider whether new restrictions are needed in England based on factors including how much of the workforce is having to isolate.
gAsked whether the government will have the information on Monday to make key decisions, Dr Harries told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “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.”
On Thursday it was revealed that NHS staff absences in London hospitals had doubled in a week as more workers were forced to self-isolate.
The government has altered isolation rules and cut the self-isolation period from 10 days to seven for those who take a lateral flow test on day six and day seven – as long as the results of both those tests are negative.
However, the impact of people having to take time off work is already hitting the country hard.
Harries said that ministers are being kept updated on a daily basis and that monitoring would 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.”
Harries said findings suggesting Omicron may be less likely to result in serious illness than the Delta strain of coronavirus offer a “glimmer of Christmas hope”, but warned that more information is needed about the impact on elderly and more vulnerable patients, as current data is mainly based on younger people who have contracted the strain.
She said: “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”.
Harries 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.”
On Thursday the UK recorded its highest ever amount of new coronavirus infections with 122,448 in one day.
In total there have been more than 11 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK and nearly 148,000 people have died since the start of the pandemic, government figures show.
Watch: What is a Rapid Lateral Flow Test?