Covid: Ministers watch data as studies say Omicron risk lower

This is good news in the longer term. 

Put simply: if Omicron is twice as infective but half as virulent we still have a problem with overloading the NHS in the immediate future.  Unfortunately we have been running with very high levels of overall Covid infection, particularly in Devon. – Owl

Doug Faulkner

The UK government says it is monitoring Covid data after early studies found the Omicron variant may cause milder illness than the Delta variant.

Scientists said the findings are good news but warned a big wave of cases could still overwhelm the NHS.

New rules have been set out in Wales and Northern Ireland but no further curbs have been announced in England.

Boris Johnson has ruled out any changes before Christmas.

That leaves England out of step with the other nations of the UK – which have all announced further measures to kick in from Boxing Day.

The prime minister has warned the variant “continues to surge across the country faster than anything we have seen before”.

In an article for the Sun he urged people to take “extra special care” to protect themselves and their families against Covid this Christmas.

Early data from South Africa and studies in England and Scotland published on Wednesday suggest Omicron infections may be milder and lead to fewer hospital admissions.

Analysis by researchers at Imperial College London found around a 40% reduction in the risk of being admitted to hospital for a night or more compared with Delta, while an Edinburgh University study suggested there was a 65% lower risk of being hospitalised with Omicron – but it was based on only a few cases.

In South Africa, a study suggested Omicron patients were 70-80% less likely to need hospital treatment. However, it suggested there was no difference in outcomes for the few patients that ended up in hospital with Omicron.

Imperial College’s Prof Neil Ferguson said the research was “clearly good news to a degree”.

However, he warned the reduction was “not sufficient to dramatically change the modelling” and the speed that Omicron is spreading could still mean hospitalisations “in numbers that could put the NHS in a difficult position”.

While the analysis showed evidence of a moderate reduction in the risk of hospitalisation from the Omicron variant, he said this appeared “to be offset by the efficacy of vaccines against infection”.

Dr Jim McMenamin, the national Covid-19 incident director for Public Health Scotland, said the University of Edinburgh’s findings were “a qualified good news story”, but that it was “important we don’t get ahead of ourselves”.

He said a “smaller proportion of a much greater number of cases” could still mean a “substantial” number of people may experience severe Covid infections which could lead to hospitalisation.

The UK Health Security Agency is expected to publish early real-world data on Omicron soon, which could give further indications of the variant’s severity.

Graph showing Covid cases in the UK since March 2020

From Sunday nightclubs in Northern Ireland will have to close and from Monday further restrictions will come into force, including a return to table-service only in hospitality venues.

Also on Sunday, Wales is returning to the rule of six in pubs, cinemas and restaurants.

The number of military personnel supporting the Welsh Ambulance service will nearly double in the new year, with another 183 troops to help out from 4 January – taking the total to just over 400.

The Chief Executive of NHS Wales, Judith Paget, says almost a fifth of healthcare staff could be off work at the peak of the Omicron wave.

In Scotland there will be limits on the size of public gatherings for three weeks from Sunday, and from Monday new restrictions will be placed on pubs, restaurants and other public indoor spaces – including a one metre distancing rule between groups, and table service where alcohol is served.