One in four colds is likely down to COVID, expert warns

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Saturday November 27, 2021.
Boris Johnson will review current COVID-19 measures on 18 December. (PA Images)

One in four colds is likely down to people having coronavirus, an expert has said.

Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology from the Covid Zoe app testing app, urged the public to take a test and stay inside if they felt unwell and had cold-like symptoms such as the "sniffles".

On Sunday, the UK Health Security Agency said a further 86 cases of Omicron had been confirmed in the UK - a significant daily rose from Saturday's total of 160.

Boris Johnson is set to decide whether the government will introduce tougher social distancing measures on 18 December in response to the emergence of the new Omicron COVID variant.

Watch: COVID-19: Omicron causing up to 1,000 infections a day in UK - many more than official figures suggest, leading scientist says

Prof Spector said people with cold-like symptoms should work from home and avoid Christmas parties in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus.

“At the moment, we’re estimating that somewhere between one and three and one in four colds are actually due to COVID,” he told Times Radio on Monday. "That’s quite a high rate of people that are currently not even bothered to get a lateral flow test, or getting a PCR test, going to parties and spreading it around.

“So if that transfers to Omicron then we’re going to be compiling that problem much faster than we would need to."

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He also urged the public that, if they felt unwell and had cold-like symptoms, not to venture outside.

“We want to tell people that if you don’t feel well that day, don’t go out, don’t go to work, work from home, because the start of that sniffle, the start of that sore throat, that headache could be a mild dose of COVID that is just breaking through your vaccine," he said.

“So I think everyone needs to be much more aware of a whole range of symptoms and not wait for the loss of smell or taste which may never come, not wait for fever, not wait for that persistent cough."

The government has said it is urgently investigating whether the new variant is more transmissible and is more likely to escape the vaccines than the Delta variant, which is currently the most dominant strain in the UK. There are also concerns the new strain may mean people are more likely to be re-infected with COVID.

As a result, the Prime Minister is under pressure to balance controlling the spread of the new variant with concerns from within his own party of going in too soon and too hard with restrictions with fears of COVID fatigue.

Staff hand out self test kits at a Coronavirus testing centre in Southwark, London.
Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology, has warned one in four colds could be COVID-19. (PA Images)

Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, has also said he is worried if the public will be able to adhere to a new round of restrictions.

The emergence of the new Omicron variant has caused alarm in the scientific community with its high number of mutations, potentially allowing it to reduce the efficacy of vaccines and be more contagious.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed it will be "weeks" before scientists know more about the virus and whether it poses more of a threat than previous strains.

Watch: Vaccine creator warns next pandemic may be worse

On Saturday, the government announced that all travellers arriving in England will need to take a COVID test before departure in a bid to reduce the number of Omicron cases being imported.

However, Professor Paul Hunter, from the school of medicine at the University of East Anglia, expressed concern about how widespread the variant could already be and questioned the efficacy of travel restrictions.

"How it’s likely to spread in the UK still uncertain, but I think the early signs are that it will probably spread quite quickly and probably start outcompeting Delta and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least, he said.

EMBARGOED TO 0001 SUNDAY AUGUST 15 File photo dated 19/02/21 of a Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine being prepared. All 16 and 17-year-olds in England will be offered their first Covid jab by August 23, under a new target set by the Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who has said offering young people the vaccine by this date will allow those teenagers in that age bracket the two weeks necessary to build maximum immunity before returning to school in September. Issue date: Sunday August 15, 2021.
Virus expert Professor Mark Woolhouse claimed vaccines will still be effective against hte new variant. (PA Images)

“One of the problems with travel restrictions like this is that it then de-motivates other countries to actually be open about their own situations for fear of what they would see as economic sanctions," he said.

"So I think once the infection is spreading within a country, then border restrictions don’t really add anything."

Hunter also claimed current COVID case numbers in the UK are likely be four times higher than recorded.

Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) which advises the Government, also expressed scepticism about travel restrictions in light of the emergence of the new variant.

“I think that may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.

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“If Omicron is here in the UK, and it certainly is, if there’s community transmission in the UK, and it certainly looks that way, then it’s that community transmission that will drive a next wave, he said.

“The cases that are being imported are important, we want to detect those and isolate any positive cases we find, as we would for any case anywhere. But I think it’s too late to make a material difference to the course of the Omicron wave, if we’re going to have one.”

43,992 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on Sunday with 54 deaths.

Watch: COVID-19: UK Omicron cases reach 246 after 86 new infections reported, according to latest figures