Prepare for staggering number of Omicron infections, warns health chief

Omicron is the biggest threat to Britain since the start of the pandemic and the country will see “staggering” numbers of infections in the coming days, the government’s top public health official warned today.

Omicron is the biggest threat to Britain since the start of the pandemic and the country will see “staggering” numbers of infections in the coming days, the government’s top public health official warned today.

Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, said that Omicron was “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic”.

With hundreds of thousands of people now estimated to be infected each day, Harries said: “The numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we’ve seen in cases for previous variants.”

She told the Transport Select Committee that Omicron had the potential to put the NHS “in serious peril” because of the speed at which infections were increased. “It has a doubling time which is shortening, ie. it’s doubling faster, growing faster. In most regions in the UK it is now under two days. When it started we were estimating about four or five,” she said.

London was “starting to see it and feel it” in terms of numbers infected, and “we’re very sure there are levels growing across most communities in the UK”. She added that the spread of Omicron “could have very significant impact on our health services”.

Booster doses will offer less protection against Omicron than Delta and Harries said “the world probably is still at too early stage to be clear” how many hospitalisations were likely to result from a big wave.

Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, suggested further restrictions such as closing nightclubs might be necessary as he said controversy over plan B was “yesterday’s war”.

Boris Johnson is not expected to announce any further measures when he holds a Downing Street press conference tonight with Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, to urge people to get booster jabs.

Ministers continue to insist that people should “enjoy Christmas” as normal, splitting with their Scottish counterparts and some scientific advisers who suggest cutting down on socialising.

One hundred Tory MPs rebelled last night against Covid passes for nightclubs and big events. But in his weekly email Hunt said: “Given how fast Omicron is spreading the vote actually felt like it was fighting yesterday’s war. The issue now is not whether we have Covid passes but whether nightclubs are able to open at all.”

Today in the Commons the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer seized on the vote, saying it had only passed into law because of his party’s support and said Johnson was “too weak to lead”.

“The British public are looking for a prime minister with the trust and the authority to lead Britain through the crisis,” he said. “Instead we’re burdened with the worst possible prime minister at the worst possible time. The prime minister is so weak that without Labour votes last night, vital public health measures wouldn’t have got through.”

Johnson rejected Starmer’s claims but said he also respected the “anxieties” of Tory MPs about “restrictions on their liberty and the liberty of people”.

He added: “But I believe the approach we’re taking is balanced and proportionate and right for this country. They vacillate, we vaccinate. They jabber, we jab. They play party politics and we get on with the job.”

Johnson pledged that if further restrictions were necessary he would go back to MPs.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, earlier played down the prospect of new restrictions this year. He told Times Radio: “We’re not asking people to do anything differently this Christmas. We’re in a much better position than last year with the testing, the jabbing. People should be able to enjoy their Christmases in a way which just wasn’t possible last year.”

Shapps said people should do Covid tests before socialising but stopped short of following Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, in asking people to limit their household mixing in the run-up to Christmas.

The comments from Shapps mark a difference in approach from Sturgeon, who yesterday advised Scots to cut down social contacts “as much as possible” in an effort to slow the spread of Omicron.

Professor Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said he was “very concerned” about the transmission of Omicron and urged people to limit their socialising. He told the BBC: “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.”

Professor Graham Medley of the government’s SPI-M modelling panel said there was a “very real possibility” that the NHS could be overwhelmed next month at current rates.

He said: “We’ve had about 800 admissions a day for the past five months. 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. And that is the fear: that we end up with the next four months of the epidemic in one month.”

Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Today on BBC Radio 4: “I think it is a very real possibility that if the numbers of infections increasing continues in the way that it has done and it spills out [from younger groups] into older age groups then we could see the number of people being omitted to hospital getting very large and certainly going over the thousand, maybe up to 2,000 a day.”

Meanwhile a former minister urged Johnson to “reset” his government to show it is competent as he suggested that the vast rebellion against Covid passes was fuelled by anger over sleaze and Downing Street’s Christmas party.

The prime minister suffered the biggest rebellion of his premiership last night as nearly 100 Conservative MPs voted against new restrictions and some of them openly questioned his future.

Almost half of Tory backbenchers voted against new curbs that will require people to show proof of vaccination or a negative test at large indoor venues across England, leaving the prime minister reliant on Labour’s support. The rebellion — which was far bigger than No 10 and the whips expected — came from all wings of the party, including 13 former cabinet ministers and 26 MPs who were elected in 2019.

Johnson’s embarrassment in the Commons comes at a moment of escalating political and epidemiological difficulties. As the Omicron variant spreads rapidly, Johnson faces the potential for by-election humiliation in the ultra-safe Conservative seat of North Shropshire tomorrow.

Downing Street is also braced for the imminent release of the cabinet secretary’s report into its Christmas parties last year, while Lord Geidt, Johnson’s independent ethics adviser, must decide whether to quit amid suggestions he was not given a full account by the prime minister of the facts surrounding how he paid to refurbish his Downing Street flat.

Stephen Hammond, a former health minister from the Conservative Party’s one-nation wing, said that there was “disgruntlement” on the green benches. Hammond, who was among the 99 rebels, told Times Radio: “There is a lot of disgruntlement because we’ve had three or four things where the government have mishandled the issue. It’s then undermined everything that a lot of Conservative MPs are doing.

“The debates and the battles where Tory MPs are most cross have not been about policy, they’ve been about standards in public life, about the way we are seen by the public. Most MPs on all sides of the political persuasion are good people trying to do a good job, and when you’re undermined by ‘sleaze’ — most people didn’t have a Christmas party last year, I cancelled my office party, I didn’t go to others. And I’m sick and tired of saying ‘No, I didn’t go to the No 10 office party.’”

Hammond added: “The prime minister knows that there is disgruntlement, and he knows that this government has probably got to reset itself, it’s got to set out what its purpose is post-Covid and it’s got to be competent. If a Conservative government stands for one thing it stands for creating opportunity and competence.”

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, told Times Radio that there were signs the doubling of infections was slowing.

“If [the number of cases of omicron variant] kept on this doubling every two days, you get to 11 million on Christmas Day and the entire country on New Year’s Eve. Now, this is not sensible. This is not going to happen. So it’s bound to curve off at some point.

“[There are] some signs it is slowing down already, so these sort of extrapolations assuming keeping on doubling every two days, obviously can’t go on for a very long time.

He admitted that the numbers would be vast, regardless, but said: “There’s huge uncertainty about what the actual impact will be. It could be considerably better than last winter, it could be worse.”

The Royal Mail will almost double its capacity to deliver 900,000 lateral flow tests per day by the end of this week, with demand soaring and none available online.

Between 6am and 8am today, more than 200,000 lateral flow tests (LFTs) were ordered online and by mid-morning the government website stated: “Sorry, there are no home delivery slots left for rapid lateral flow tests right now.”

PCR tests are still available in every region of the UK except London, where there were no longer any appointments available by early afternoon, but there are fears that fewer people will book PCRs if they have not been able to access LFTs to test themselves first.

The demand for LFTs on Tuesday was up 83 per cent on Tuesday last week, sparked by calls for contacts of positive cases to take seven daily tests and amid fears that people may have to isolate over Christmas.

Anyone who tests positive from today will face ten days of self-isolation that will include Christmas Day, and social media has been awash today with people devastated at receiving a positive test that will ruin their Christmas plans. Up to one million people are expected to be self-isolating at Christmas, largely due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

Large numbers of people took to social media to raise concerns about their difficulties in obtaining LFTs and also about the long queues, both in the online booking system and in person at vaccination centres, to get their booster jabs.

One person on Twitter posted this morning: “I’m a carer for two disabled members of my family. I’m self-employed. I can’t afford not to go to work and I can’t afford to make the people I care for sick. I’m petrified [of] going to work. I can’t get any LFTs and I can’t get a booster.”

One site in Hampstead in north London had run out of walk-in appointments for booster jabs by 10.30 am, with a local blogger posting: “It’s incredibly busy with a very long queue — so do be careful.”

Gregg Huish posted: “Just arrived for my booster, 10 mins before appointment, at least 150 already in the queue. Looks like things are overrun already.”

Despite the queues, the rollout of boosters has continued apace, with 513,000 people offered their third or booster jab on Monday.

Downing Street has urged parents to keep their children in school.

Responding to suggestions some parents were keeping their children home to avoid the prospect of anyone catching Covid and being forced to isolate over Christmas, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The best place for children, who have in many respects suffered the most through this pandemic, is in school, receiving vital face-to-face education.”

The spokesman said: “It’s important that schools, and indeed parents, don’t take precautionary steps to deprive their children of education.”