Another record daily rise in UK Covid cases, but Omicron ‘appears less severe’

<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Variant fuels wave of infections, but some scientists strike upbeat note, with one saying high death rates are ‘now history’

The UK has seen another record rise of daily Covid cases, with 138,831 reported in England, Scotland and Wales alone – but a leading scientist said the Omicron variant was “not the same disease we were seeing a year ago”.

According to official figures from the UK government’s coronavirus dashboard, a record 117,093 cases – infections that are picked up through testing – were reported for England on Tuesday, up from a previous high of 113,628 on Christmas Day. In Wales 12,378 cases were reported on Tuesday, also a record high.

The Scottish government later reported 9,360 cases in the past 24 hours, making the total of 138,831 cases higher than at any other point in the pandemic for the entire UK, despite data missing for Northern Ireland.

It came as Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Omicron “appears to be less severe and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital”, and high Covid death rates in the UK are “now history”.

There were also calls from some scientists for the period of self-isolation to be cut. Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said people with Covid should eventually be allowed to “go about their normal lives” as they would with a common cold.

“If the self-isolation rules are what’s making the pain associated with Covid, then we need to do that perhaps sooner rather than later,” he told BBC Breakfast. “Maybe not quite just yet.”

Prof Tim Spector, who runs King’s College London’s Zoe Covid study, said reducing the period of isolation would “protect the economy”.

Currently, people in England who have tested positive for Covid can cut their self-isolation from 10 days to seven if they have negative lateral flow tests on days six and day seven. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it remains 10 days.

Data from NHS England released on Tuesday revealed that the number of patients in hospital had risen by more than 1,000 in a day, with 9,546 beds occupied by people with Covid on Tuesday, compared with 8,474 the day before – although some trusts, thought to have about 220 Covid patients in total based on recent submissions, did not report their figures for Monday.

Tuesday’s hospital figure is a 38% increase on that reported on 21 December and the highest since 3 March, although far below the peak last winter of more than 34,000 people in hospital with Covid.

There is no condition I know of that cannot be made worse by Covid-19

Dr Simon Clarke

Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, cautioned the latest daily case figures do not take into account changes in testing behaviour over the festive period, or delays in processing tests.

Clarke added that while some people in hospital with Covid will have been admitted for a different reason, the situation should not be dismissed as insignificant.

“These are vulnerable people whose condition is serious enough to require them to be in hospital over Christmas,” he said. “There is no condition I know of that cannot be made worse by Covid-19.”

However, some scientists have struck a more upbeat note. Bell said that although hospital admissions had increased in recent weeks as Omicron spreads through the population, fewer patients were needing high-flow oxygen and the average length of stay was down to three days.

“The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago of intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely, that is now history, in my view, and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue,” he said.

The figures came a day after Downing Street confirmed that no new coronavirus restrictions would be introduced in England before the new year. In the rest of the UK, a raft of measures are in place, including the closure of nightclubs in Wales, and limiting socialising in Scotland to groups of up to three households.

The decision has been criticised by some scientists, with one expert describing it as “the greatest divergence between scientific advice and legislation” since the start of the pandemic.

While the latest data suggests the risk of being admitted to hospital is up to 70% less for people with Omicron compared with those infected with Delta, the sheer numbers of people with the new variant has caused serious concern in terms of the number of people requiring hospital care and widespread impact on staffing.

According to the Office for National Statistics, an estimated 1 in 35 people had Covid in the week ending 19 December, a figure that was even higher in London, at 1 in 20.

Experts have cautioned that it is not yet clear how the virus has moved through the population over Christmas, and what will happen once the rate of infection begins to rise in older people.

The disparity in Covid rules and guidance across the four nations of the UK has also led to other concerns, including that partygoers might travel across the border from Wales to England to celebrate new year.

Nick Newman, chair of the Cardiff Licensees Forum, said he expected many people to leave Wales for England. “It’s 40 minutes from Newport to Bristol and it’s easy to get from north Wales into Manchester or Liverpool. English businesses are going to benefit.”

Meanwhile, those in England attempting to follow government advice to take a lateral flow test before mixing with others faced difficulties on Tuesday.

Pharmacies in England have reported running out of test kits before Christmas, with deliveries of supplies delayed by the Christmas and Boxing Day holidays – and some pharmacies remained shut on Monday and Tuesday due to the bank holidays.

Availability of walk-in lateral flow or PCR tests in England was also disrupted on Tuesday morning, while people attempting to order lateral flow tests online in England also faced obstacles.