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The NHS is in danger of being “overwhelmed” by the surge in Omicron cases, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned, despite further evidence it causes less severe illness than earlier Covid-19 strains.
Mr Javid said officials were monitoring the data “hour by hour” after new figures showed the Covid infection rates in the UK reaching record levels with an estimated 1.4 million people with the virus.
The warning came as the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) estimated someone with Omicron was 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 findings are broadly in line with studies published on Wednesday by Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh.
Mr Javid said that, while the UKHSA conclusions were “promising”, Omicron cases were continuing to rise at an “extraordinary rate”.
“Hospital admissions are increasing, and we cannot risk the NHS being overwhelmed,” he said in a statement.
“This is early-stage analysis and we continue to monitor the data hour by hour.
“It is still too early to determine next steps.”
Earlier the Health Secretary confirmed the Government would not be announcing any new restrictions for England before Christmas.
But his comments raise the prospect that ministers are preparing to act as early as next week if the cases continue to grow at a rapid rate.
The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all already announced they are putting in place measures once Christmas is out of the way.
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said the health service was on a “war footing” as the variant continues to sweep through the country.
“We are once again ramping up to deal with the rise in Covid infections,” he said.
“Staff are making every possible preparation for the uncertain challenges of Omicron.”
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said hospital trusts were looking to expand capacity to deal with a major influx of new admissions.
“We are identifying places that would be needed if we really, really needed to surge.
“We can do this, but the issue is, we’re in incredible pressure right the way across the health system,” he told the BBC.
We’re definitely not out of the danger zone – I think perhaps we can downgrade this from a hurricane to a very severe storm
Professor Andrew Hayward
The UKHSA emphasised that its findings regarding the severity of Omicron were “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small numbers of confirmed cases currently in hospital.
Ministers were divided over the need for restrictions in the run-up to Christmas with Mr Javid and Communities Secretary Michael Gove reportedly pressing for action while Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss argued more data was needed.
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.
The number of lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases also hit a new daily record with 119,789 as of 9am on Thursday, according to official figures.
Meanwhile 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.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Nervtag group which advises the Government on new respiratory diseases, said while it was “undeniably good news” that Omicron appeared to be less severe, the speed of transmission meant it was still a threat.
“We’re definitely not out of the danger zone – I think perhaps we can downgrade this from a hurricane to a very severe storm,” he told the BBC.
“If you’ve got a halving of severity but in the context of case numbers of Omicron doubling every two or three days, that doesn’t buy you much extra time, maybe less than a week in terms of relieving the pressure on the NHS.”