While data coming in on the Omicron variant has shown encouraging signs that it might present a less dangerous version of the coronavirus, the speed at which it is transmitting is causing alarm around the world. Authorities are warning that, despite being a potentially milder version of the virus, Omicron still poses a serious threat to health systems, the economy and public health.
On Monday, the Government published a fresh set of data on the Omicron variant, which showed some interesting new trends.
Most notable is the eye-watering speed at which the variant appears to be taking over Delta as the most prevalent variant in the UK.
In London – dubbed ‘Omicron ground zero’ – the variant makes up more than 95 percent of all sequenced genomes, the data said.
Across the whole of England, more than 90 percent of cases are now Omicron.
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The data also shows the alarming rate at which Omicron is becoming the dominant variant, leaping from 73 percent to over 90 in the week leading up to Christmas.
But it’s not all bad news. Scientists are increasingly convinced that Omicron is a less severe version of Covid and, with the help of vaccines, is less likely to see people end up in hospital.
In South Africa, where the new variant was first identified, the sharp peak of infections caused by Omicron appears to be retreating as quickly as it arrived.
Ridhwaan Suliman, a senior researcher at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), said the country has “surpassed the peak of the Omicron wave now”.
He said that although test positivity remains “still high at 29.8 per cent,” the fact the figure is decreasing confirms “the decline in infections is real and not a testing artefact.”
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and the Government’s life sciences adviser, said although hospitalisations had increased in recent weeks as Omicron spreads through the population, the disease “appears to be less severe and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital”.
Fewer patients were needing high-flow oxygen and the average length of stay was down to three days, he said.
He said that Omicron is “not the same disease we were seeing a year ago” and high Covid death rates in the UK are gone for good.
He said: “The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago – 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 while there had been an increase in the number of people on ventilators in London – up to 232 as of 27 December – it remained below 400, a marker being watched for when considering further restrictions.
Not everyone agrees, however, with some scientists criticising the Government’s decision not to impose further restrictions in England, even if hospitalisations aren’t the main risk factor.
The NHS Providers chief executive, Chris Hopson, said NHS staff absences caused by having to isolate are causing strain on the health service.
Some experts are currently predicting up to 40 percent of staff in London could be off in a “worst-case scenario”.
He said: “We’re now seeing a significant increase in the level of staff absences, and quite a few of our chief executives are saying that they think that that’s probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge for them than necessarily the number of people coming in who need treatment because of Covid.”
But Environment Secretary George Eustice said the evidence did not support more interventions at the moment.
Mr Eustice said that “if we do see a big increase in hospital admissions” then ministers would have to act.
The hospitality sector described the decision not to add further measures as a “lifeline” for pubs, bars and clubs.
Prof Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Breakfast that in time people with Covid should 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 said.
He suggested this might be able to happen “once we’re past Easter”, depending on the effects of the disease at that time.