Professor Chris Whitty today called for ‘serious caution’ over a raft of promising data which suggests Omicron may cause milder disease.
Fewer Covid-infected patients are being admitted to hospital wards in South Africa now compared to previous waves, sparking hopes that the strain is less lethal than the rivals it has outcompeted.
But England’s chief medical officer told a Downing Street press briefing that the figures were to be expected, simply because the country had higher levels of immunity going into the wave than during the summer, when Delta struck.
Professor Whitty warned the same pattern may not be replicated in the UK because it wasn’t hit as badly by the Delta, warning South Africa’s last wave was more recent so its population-wide immunity was fresher.
He told the nation the Government was currently lacking ‘clear data on some of the really key questions’, such as how Britain’s vaccinated wall of defence — which began a year ago — will hold up. However, experts are adamant that the jabs should still offer huge protection against severe illness, and a booster will cut the odds further.
He said: ‘I think there has been a certain amount of commentary about the fact that doctors and scientists from South Africa… have indicated that there may be some reduction in the hospitalisation rates they are seeing with Omicron. I want to put a really serious caution on this because I think it has been overinterpreted.
‘The amount of immunity for this wave because of prior Delta wave and vaccination is far higher than it was for their last wave and, therefore, the fact they have a lower hospitalisation rate this time is unsurprising.
‘That doesn’t mean there is some degree of milder disease — that is possible — but I think there is a danger that people have overinterpreted this to say this is not a problem and there’s nothing to worry about. I want to be clear, I am afraid this is going to be a problem.’
It comes as a record 26,976 cases were detected over the last 24 hours in South Africa, surging past the previous high from early July when Delta was running rampant.
It also marked a 36 per cent rise on last Wednesday, and cases rose week-on-week in every province except the epicentre Gauteng, where data suggests the outbreak may have already peaked.
Another 620 Covid patients were admitted to wards in the country today, officials said, a 65 per cent rise on the same time last week. And 54 more Covid deaths were recorded, a 50 per cent rise in a week. Both are lagging indicators, however, because of the time taken for someone who catches the virus to become ill enough to be admitted to hospital.
Professor Chris Whitty (pictured) today called for ‘caution’ over promising hospitalisation data suggesting Omicron may cause milder disease in South Africa after the country’s daily infections jumped to another high
A record 26,976 infections were detected over the last 24 hours in South Africa, surging past the previous high of 26,485 cases from early July when Delta was running rampant
It also marked a 36 per cent rise on last Wednesday, and cases rose week-on-week in every province except the epicentre Gauteng (red line) where the outbreak may be peaking
Worried Whitty tells people to pick the events they attend ‘carefully’
The UK today announced its highest ever daily coronavirus case number as the Omicron variant engulfs the nation and Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty delivered a stark warning to Britons over Christmas parties at a Downing St press conference.
A record 78,610 people tested positive in the past 24 hours, eclipsing the previous highest count by more than 10,000 — when 68,053 were recorded on January 8 at the peak of the second wave.
Officially, only a third of today’s cases were attributed to Omicron but Government modelling predicts 400,000 people are catching the mutant virus every day, with the strain spreading faster than testing can keep up.
Experts have warned there could be a million daily infections by next month which could translate into up to 4,000 hospital admissions each day in projections that are widely disputed.
Just minutes after the sharp rise in cases, Professor Whitty warned that more Covid records were going to be broken by the ultra-infectious Omicron variant.
He said people need to ‘prioritise’ who they meet in the run up to Christmas or risk catching the virus and spending the festive period alone.
Professor Whitty could not be pinned down on whether harsher lockdown curbs were necessary, pointing out that there were still several key unknowns about Omicron — such as how vaccines will perform and how severe it is.
But he added: ‘I think that what most people are doing is, and I would think this seems very sensible, is prioritising the social interactions that really matter to them and, to protect those ones, de-prioritising ones that matter much less to them.’
Asked specifically about work Christmas parties, Professor Whitty said: ‘The risk of someone getting infected at something that doesn’t really matter to them and then not being able to do the things that do matter to them obviously goes up.’
Professor Whitty said there should be ‘really serious caution’ over reports from South African doctors that Omicron is milder than previous strains. He warned the variant was so infectious it could cause more hospital admissions than Delta by virtue of infecting more people.
Speaking at the press conference today, Professor Whitty said: ‘The point I was making about South Africa is between the last wave and this wave, their degree of immunity has substantially increased and therefore there is much greater immunity in South Africa to Covid in general not specific to Omicron than there was in the last wave.
‘So some decrease in severity you would expect because of increasing immunity.
‘But in contrast to our Delta wave, we already had lots of immunity thanks to the fantastic work of our NHS in double vaccinating everybody, so we don’t have that additional thing on top.
‘So, it may be some of or maybe all of any decrease in severity in South Africa is explained by that increase in immunity, which is not something that will necessarily be replicated here.
‘The second thing is there age groups are very different. There are a number of very different factors including HIV, so reading across data needs to be done with very strong care.’
Despite Professor Whitty’s warning’s, promising data earlier today suggested Omicron infections may have already peaked in Gauteng, the epicentre of South Africa’s outbreak.
The South African Government’s weekly Covid surveillance report revealed that cases fell in Gauteng province last week for the first time since the nation sounded the alarm about Omicron on November 24.
There were 377 cases per 100,000 people in the week to December 11 in Gauteng, down roughly 4 per cent on the previous week.
Experts told MailOnline that while the ‘encouraging’ drop in cases was small enough to be within the margin of error, it at the very least shows Omicron is no longer spreading exponentially.
Testing in the province has more than doubled in the past three weeks — from 541 tests per 100,000 on November 27 to 1,264 now, suggesting swabbing capacity is not the issue.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a former member of the Nervtag and JCVI panels, expects the ultra-infectious variant to infect so many Britons that it creates a work absence crisis. But he predicted that it won’t overwhelm the NHS, despite gloomy warnings from No10’s own scientists.
A major real-world study of Omicron in South Africa yesterday found that the mutant virus is causing two-thirds fewer hospital admissions than Delta, bolstering claims it is milder than previous strains.
Professor Dingwall, a sociologist who still sits on the Government’s Moral and Ethical Advisory Group but has no input on the response to the pandemic, told MailOnline: ‘Respectable experts in South Africa are telling us we’re overreacting and that this is a milder virus.
He accused British scientists of ‘snobbery’, adding: ‘The best South African scientists are as good as scientists anywhere in world and if their view is there no reason to panic, we shouldn’t be so quick to disagree.’
Doctors on the ground in the South Africa have insisted for weeks that Omicron causes milder disease, likely due to immunity from earlier waves and vaccines. There are just 375 daily Covid admissions in South Africa currently, on average.
But No10’s scientific advisers fear that Britain’s older and denser population puts it at a greater risk of a wave of infections and hospital pressure, even though only 25 per cent of South Africans are vaccinated and their booster roll-out is only just beginning.
There is a suggestion that the NHS’ threshold for being ‘overwhelmed’ is lower now after 18 months of battling the pandemic. The service was already in crisis mode before Omicron emerged, and since the pandemic hit waiting lists for routine operations have hit a record high.
South Africa’s weekly Covid surveillance report this morning revealed that cases fell in the epicentre of Gauteng province last week, in an early sign that the variant has peaked within a month of being discovered. The province, which includes major cities like Johannesberg and Tshwane, recorded 377 cases per 100,000 people in the week to December 11, down 3.9 per cent on the previous week
Cases were rising in young children, older teenagers and adults 40 and over, but falling in all other groups. The fact that cases are still rising in elderly and vulnerable groups is still a cause for concern
The above graph shows the weekly Covid infection rate per 100,000 people across South Africa’s nine provinces. It reveals cases are now pointing downwards in Gauteng
This graph shows the Covid infection rate per 100,000 people in England’s regions. It also shows there has been a rapid uptick in London (red) while cases remain largely flat in other regions
The above graph shows the seven-day average for hospital admissions in different regions of England. It reveals that in London (orange) there has been a steady increase
This map reveals which parts of South Africa the variant’s case numbers are rising fastest in. It shows these are the Free State and the Eastern Cape
Professor Dingwall told The Telegraph last night: ‘My gut feeling is that omicron is very much like the sort of flu pandemic we planned for – a lot of sickness absence from work in a short period, which will create difficulties for public services and economic activity, but not of such a severity as to be a big problem for the NHS and the funeral business.’
His comments come as a weekly Covid report from South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases found cases dropped in Gauteng last week for the first time.
Omicron-hotspot London is seeing Covid cases rise quicker now than since very first wave
Omicron-stricken London’s Covid cases are rising faster than at any point since the first wave and most people who have a cold are likely to be infected with the virus, a top epidemiologist claimed today.
Professor Tim Spector, who runs the UK’s largest study tracking viruses, said at least half of all respiratory infections in the capital were now Covid. For comparison, it is about one in four across the rest of the country.
He added there was ‘no difference’ in symptoms between Omicron and Delta infections, with warning signs similar to a cold and including a headache, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue and sneezing.
Health bosses warned today that Omicron was the ‘biggest threat’ since the start of the pandemic, and was leaving the NHS — a key barometer of whether more restrictions are needed — in ‘peril’.
SAGE scientist Professor Graham Medley said he feared the mutant strain could trigger a ‘very large’ wave of hospitalisations in the country because it is more transmissible than other strains.
Omicron is already behind more than 50 per cent of infections in London, which has seen its infection rate spiral to the highest levels since January at 575.4 cases per 100,000 people.
Hospitalisations in the capital have also risen 50 per cent in a fortnight, from 90 to 140 people being admitted to wards with Covid every day on average. But deaths remain flat at an average of 10 fatalities due to the virus a day.
These are lagging indicators, however, because of the time taken for someone who catches the virus to fall seriously ill and be admitted to hospital.
A spokesman for the mayor suggested yesterday that they would support more restrictions for the capital, saying it is better to ‘act now’. But Tories called on ministers to rely on the ‘vaccine shield’.
It comes amid signs the capital may already be locking itself down, with many West End performances shelved because actors have caught the virus and pubs and restaurants facing a sea of Christmas party cancellations.
The province, which includes major cities like Johannesburg and Tshwane, recorded 377 cases per 100,000 people in the week to December 11, down 3.9 per cent on the previous week.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia and professor in environmental health at the Tshwane University of Technology, described the fall in infections as ‘encouraging’.
He added: ‘But we should be careful not to read too much in a single week of data. But if this fall continues then that would be good news for South Africa and maybe for us as well.
‘I can’t think of any major caveats, though one swallow doesn’t make a spring so just one week of data could be due to other things such as problems with people accessing testing (I know of no evidence that this is the case but I am always a little cautious).’
Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson yesterday said it was ‘valid’ that the UK could face an astronomical 1million daily Omicron infections by the end of the year.
That projection is based on widely disputed modelling by the UK Health Security Agency which claims there were also 200,000 Omicron infections yesterday — despite the centralised testing scheme picking up just 59,000.
Professor Hunter said that while the 1million-per-day figure was ‘theoretically possible’, he believes it is too high.
‘As for the UK the big difference is that even though vaccination rates are lower in South Africa, the large majority of people have had a prior infection so difficult to extrapolate to UK context.
‘Even so I don’t expect that Omicron will continue to grow with its current short doubling time for much longer otherwise we would all have been infected by the 12th day of Christmas.’
The development comes after the first major real-world study in South Africa found that Omicron is currently leading to a third fewer hospital admissions than Delta did during its entire wave — 38 admissions per 1,000 Omicron cases compared to 101 per 1,000 for Delta.
Officials who analysed 78,000 Omicron cases in the past month estimated the risk of hospitalisation was a fifth lower than with Delta and 29 per cent lower than the original virus.
The findings lend weight to the theory that the ultra-infectious variant is weaker than previous strains, something which doctors on the ground in South Africa have been claiming for weeks.
But the reduction in severity is probably not solely down to Omicron being intrinsically milder, according to the South African Medical Research Council which led the analysis.
Around 70 per cent of South Africans have recovered from Covid already and 23 per cent are double-vaccinated, which has created high levels of immunity.
The study also found two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine still provide 70 per cent protection against hospital admission or death from Omicron, compared to 93 per cent for Delta.
While this is more protection than many scientists initially feared, it still leaves 30 per cent of people vulnerable to severe Omicron disease, four times as many as Delta. Waning immunity from two Pfizer doses was found to offer just 33 per cent protection against Omicron infection, explaining why the country has seen a meteoric rise in case numbers.
THREE jabs to go on holiday: Brits warned it’s ‘inevitable’ they’ll require booster shots to be ‘fully vaccinated’ for travel in 2022
Britons wanting to holiday abroad next year will ‘inevitably’ require a third Covid jab to be allowed into destination countries, Grant Shapps revealed today.
The Transport Secretary said nations including G7 members like the US, France and Italy, all popular with millions of UK tourists, were likely to make it an entry requirement in 2022.
The booster jab is also likely to become a domestic requirement to be classed as fully vaccinated within Britain, with ministers saying rules will be updated as soon as people have had a reasonable chance to get it.
Mr Shapps told Sky News this morning: ‘I speak to my opposite numbers in other countries – transport secretaries from around the world – particularly from the G7 this year, which we are hosting.
‘They are saying ”look we are going to switch to requiring people to have that third jab” before they are able to come into their countries so eventually it becomes inevitable because other countries will require it for us.
‘I don’t know what that time will be – not this year.
Last night Sajid Javid today confirmed all countries will be removed from the Government’s international travel red list from 4am today because the Omicron variant is already running rampant in the UK.
The Health Secretary told the House of Commons that the change has been made because there is domestic community transmission of the variant and it is also spreading ‘widely across the world’.
As a result he said the red list is ‘now less effective in slowing the incursion of Omicron from abroad’ and hotel quarantine will therefore be shelved.
The 11 countries on the list are: Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The decision was hammered out at a meeting of the Cabinet’s Covid-19 operations (Covid-O) committee.
The red list was reintroduced last month following the emergence of Omicron as ministers tried to prevent importing cases into the UK.
Despite the change on the red list, tougher travel testing rules introduced in response to the variant will remain in place.
Despite the optimism, one of the Government’s top modellers said there is a possibility the NHS could be overwhelmed next month because of Omicron.
Professor Graham Medley, chair of the SPI-M modelling group that feeds into SAGE, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he is worried ‘we could see numbers of people being admitted to hospital getting very large’ if infections continue to rise and spill into older age groups.
It came as Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, told MPs the Omicron coronavirus variant is ‘probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic’.
She said the ‘real potential risk’ is whether ‘cases turn into severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths’, but added that it is ‘too early’ to be clear on that.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Professor Medley said it is ‘very hard to predict in real time exactly what’s happening on any day, but it’s certainly true that the numbers of infections primarily with Omicron is increasing, and has been increasing quite dramatically’.
He added: ‘We’re probably now at the level that we have been at the past, sort of back in January, and it does look as though it’s going to continue beyond that and go over it.’
Professor Medley said there is not currently any good information on the severity of Omicron but added: ‘We are a population in a very different position to this time last year, in the sense that the majority of people have been vaccinated and there has been much infection since then, so there is much more immunity…
‘The fact that we are much more immune than we were generally means that the virus will appear to be much less severe.
‘So, individually, we have a much lower risk but the numbers of infections means that even though individually we’re at less risk, at a population level (the) number of people ending up in hospital could get very large.’
He said it is a ‘million-dollar question’ over how this will affect the health service. Asked if hospitals could end up overwhelmed, he said: ‘I think that that is a very real possibility.
‘If the numbers of infections increasing continues in the way that it has done, and it spills out into older age groups, then we could see numbers of people being admitted to hospital getting very large and certainly going over the 1,000, maybe up to 2,000 a day, that we’ve managed to keep the Delta variant below.
‘It was sort of below 1,000 since July without any restrictions, but I think that is going to be very, very difficult or are very unlikely to happen.’
Pressed on the possibility of the NHS being overwhelmed next month, the expert said: ‘I think so, there is that possibility.
‘It’s very hard to be certain about these things. You certainly can’t put a risk or probability on them, but that is one of one of the more likely things that could happen.’
Professor Medley said ‘the numbers of boosters has gone up enormously’ but it is the ‘concertina-ing effect which is the biggest danger’.
He said there have been around 800 hospital admissions per day for the past five months but ‘if we’d had all those in one month then we would have had a very different experience and the NHS would have been extremely taxed.’
He added: ‘And that is the fear – that we end up with the next four months of the epidemic in one month.’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the Government’s position, saying ministers believe Plan B includes ‘sensible proportionate steps, which, combined with getting the booster jab, we think will be the right approach to take.’
He told the Today programme that the Government is saying that ‘we’re in a much better position to enjoy Christmas than we were last year’, adding that taking tests before gatherings is a sensible move, as well as getting boosters.
Elsewhere, Professor Adam Finn, from the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told BBC Breakfast the wave of Omicron is just taking off across the country.
He said: ‘The wave is coming very fast and in fact alarmingly fast – if anything faster than ever. So it really is a race at the moment.
‘The more immunity that we’ve all got the less of a problem this is going to be, but I’m afraid it is going to be a serious problem either way.’
Prof Finn said it is not up to him to say what regulations should be put on the population, but added: ‘I think I can certainly encourage people to do everything they can to minimise spread of the virus during this critical period and, of course, a lot of that can be done voluntarily without anyone imposing rules on people.
‘We all know now what the things are that we can do. We can avoid social contact, we can minimise contact at work, we can wear masks and really importantly, do lateral flow tests and check that you aren’t showing signs of infection on a test before you go into a crowded place where you might infect other people.’
Prof Finn said he is ‘very concerned’ about the current number of daily infections, adding that we are ‘going to see the numbers of people becoming ill and needing hospital care beginning to rise steadily now over the next week and maybe over Christmas as well.’
But he said boosters take effect in the body quickly, adding: ‘It does come through very fast because you’ve got immunological memory, you’ve seen the antigen before from your previous doses, so the level of protection goes up pretty quick.’
Meanwhile, Professor Tim Spector, who helped found the Covid Zoe app, said Covid cases in London are accelerating more than was seen during the very first wave of the virus.
He told the Today programme the ‘majority of symptoms’ of the Omicron variant are like a common cold, including headaches, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue and sneezing.
He said: ‘In London, where Covid is increasing rapidly, it’s far more likely to be Covid than it is to be a cold.
‘If we look at our regional charts we see London accelerating more than we’ve seen it since the very first wave and this now means that Omicron is the predominant variant already.’
On Tuesday evening, new restrictions were approved in Parliament for face coverings at more indoor spaces in England and the introduction of NHS Covid passes for nightclubs and large venues.
In Scotland, people have been urged to limit their mixing by socialising with only up to two other households indoors, while in Northern Ireland, politicians backed mandatory Covid certification for access to nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises.