‘Glimmer of Christmas hope’ with Omicron data, says Dr Jenny Harries

·5-min read
‘Glimmer of Christmas hope’ with Omicron data, says Dr Jenny Harries

New data suggesting Omicron is less likely to lead to serious illness than the Delta Covid variant offers a “glimmer of Christmas hope”, a senior health official has said.

Recent findings from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) revealed people who get infected with Omicron are 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital compared with the Delta variant.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA, said the figures offer “hope” but added it is too early to downgrade the variant’s threat level.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr Harries said more data is needed, particularly on the impact of Omicron on elderly people.

She said: “There’s a glimmer of Christmas hope in the findings...but it definitely isn’t yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat.

“The findings we revealed yesterday showed some very, very preliminary analysis and very small numbers which I want to reinforce.

“Individuals, compared to Delta, are around 30 to 45 per cent less likely to attend A&E and 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital.

“I think critically, what we’re seeing is Omicron largely in young people and it’s only just now that the cases are starting to tip into the older population, particularly the 60 and 70 plus year olds.

“And there are a number of different reasons for why we need to continue to look at this data further.”

The rapid spread of Omicron has seen it become the “dominant strain now right across the UK”, Dr Harries warned, adding that cases are doubling in “most regions”.

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 UK experienced a record-breaking number of daily Covid cases on Thursday, with 119,789 infections reported.

It was the second time in the pandemic where the number of daily cases crossed the 100,000 mark.

Dr Harries said more data is needed to further understand the risk Omicron poses to the NHS.

But if the severity of the disease is “significantly lower than Delta”, the NHS is likely to experience less strain, she said.

She said: “The tricky things we don’t know at the moment are some quite important parameters.

“For example, we don’t yet know the average length of stay of an individual is in a hospital. We’re not seeing very significant rises in intensive care utilisation or in the use of ventilation beds.

“That may be because a lot of the people infected are younger people and we will see that coming through.

“But again, if there is a realised decrease in severity - the severity of the disease as we experience it in an immune population - is actually significantly lower than Delta, then some of that impact on the NHS may be less significant. And we’re still in this uncertain period where we were before.”

The UKHSA data, revealed this week, found a person who becomes infected with the variant is 30 to 45 per cent less likely to have to go to A&E.

The effectiveness of boosters against Omicron appears to wane after 10 weeks, UK experts added.

The UKHSA estimates that protection provided by the booster against symptomatic disease falls by about 15-25 per cent against Omicron, compared with their effectiveness against Delta.

Scotland and Wales have tightened restrictions amid the spread of Omicron but Boris Johnson is yet to impose further curbs in England.

Asked whether the Government would have the information needed to make critical decisions by Monday, 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.”

“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 added.

During his Christmas message, Boris Johnson urged people to get a third jab, describing it as a “wonderful” gift to their families.

The Prime Minister also said the pandemic is far from over, as “Omicron is surging”, and paid tribute to NHS staff.

In his Christmas message, released on Friday, Mr Johnson says: “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 underestimated” as he isolates with the infection.

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