Covid-19 UK: Boris Johnson will hold 5pm Downing St press conference on Omicron today

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The UK today announced its highest ever daily coronavirus case number as the Omicron variant engulfs the nation 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. 

Boris Johnson used the conference to plea for people to get boosters as he said that Plan B and the vaccine rollout were the ‘right mixture’ of approaches.

He said: ‘We think that, given the balance of risks and the balance of continuing uncertainties about Omicron, this is the right approach to take, the right mixture of approaches, to do these two things at once. The progress that we’re making with the booster is absolutely vital.’ 

But the language coming from experts advising the Government is much more alarmist. 

Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, earlier warned Omicron posed the ‘biggest threat’ of the pandemic so far and could put the NHS in ‘serious peril’. 

Top SAGE modeller Professor Graham Medley admitted he feared the super-strain could trigger a ‘very large’ wave of hospitalisations because it is so transmissible, while vaccine adviser Professor Adam Finn called for action to halt the ‘alarming’ spread of the virus.

NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard doubled down on claims that Omicron could cause even more hospitalisations than previous waves.

The above graph shows the proportion of cases suspected to be Omicron because they do not have an S-gene (purple). PCR tests look for three genes to confirm a Covid infection but with Omicron one is so mutated that they only pick up two of them

The above graph shows the proportion of cases suspected to be Omicron because they do not have an S-gene (purple). PCR tests look for three genes to confirm a Covid infection but with Omicron one is so mutated that they only pick up two of them

Daily coronavirus hospital admissions and deaths — both of which are lagging indicators — were up only slightly compared to last week, with 115 deaths (up 2.5 per cent) and 774 admissions (6 per cent). 

The UK Health Security Agency today announced another 4,671 lab-confirmed Omicron cases, bringing the official count to 10,017. This number is much lower than the real toll because only a small number of positive tests are analysed for variants. 

Keir Starmer slams Boris over 100-strong Tory Covid curbs revolt in brutal PMQs clashes with fears rebel MPs would OUST him if he tried to impose lockdown over Omicron threat 

Keir Starmer slammed Boris Johnson over the mass Tory Covid revolt today amid fears he could be ousted if he tries to impose lockdown to combat the Omicron threat.

The Labour leader demanded Mr Johnson ‘gets his house in order’ and branded him ‘weak’ and the ‘worst PM at the worst possible time’ during brutal clashes at PMQs.

But Mr Johnson insisted the government is taking a ‘balanced and proportionate approach’, arguing that the Plan B measures were passed with ‘Conservatives votes’ – even though 100 of his own MPs opposed Covid passes.

The bitter exchanges came as Tories turned the screw on the premier, ordering him to ‘change’ amid open warnings that he could face a leadership challenge next year.

Although the measure went through thanks to Labour bailing Mr Johnson out, there are now serious questions about whether he has the political strength to crack down further.

Mr Johnson confirmed that he has bowed to demands that Parliament must be recalled for a vote before any further restrictions are brought in, saying the Commons will get a ‘further say’ if ‘further measures are needed’.

During the pandemic most curbs have been introduced by ministers and then only approved by MPs retrospectively, something that has added to the fury of sceptics.

One Cabinet source warned that the only way Tory MPs would support a tightening now was after ‘very clear evidence that Omicron is leading to hospitalisations and deaths’.

Professor Whitty warned against overinterpreting data from South Africa, where daily hospital admissions are running at just 370 per day and data suggests two-thirds fewer patients have severe illness.

He said: ‘The first caution on this is simply a numerical one – if the rate of hospitalisation were to halve but you’re doubling every two days, in two days you’re back to where you were before you actually had the hospitalisation.

‘If the peak of this is twice as great, then halving of the size of the hospitalisation rate, you still end up in the same place. And this peak is going very fast.’

He added: ‘The second point I wanted to make, which I’m not sure it’s fully been absorbed by everybody, is that the amount of immunity in South Africa for this wave – because of a prior Delta wave and vaccination – is far higher than it was for their last wave. And therefore the fact that there is a lower hospitalisation rate is unsurprising.’

Prof Whitty said: ‘That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some degree of slightly milder disease, that is possible. But I just think there’s a danger people have over-interpreted this to say, this is not a problem and what are we worrying about?

‘I want to be clear, I’m afraid this is going to be a problem. Exact proportions of it, of course, South African scientists and UK scientists and scientists globally are trying to determine at the moment.’

Earlier, Dr Harries, chief exec at the UKHSA, warned that Omicron posed ‘probably the most significant threat we have had since the start of the pandemic’.

Despite modelling by her agency being widely disputed among scientists, she told MPs: ‘I am sure for example that the numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we have seen in cases for previous variants.

‘The real potential risk here and I would underline that because we are still learning a lot about the variant is in relation to its severity, clinical severity, and therefore whether those cases turn into severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths.

‘We are still at too early a stage for that, in fact the world probably is still at too early a stage to be clear.

‘The difficulty is that the growth of this virus has a doubling time, doubling days, at the moment which is shortening, i.e. it is doubling faster, growing faster and in most regions in the UK it is now under two days.

‘When it started we were estimating about four or five. So if you think of that growth rate right across the UK and we are starting to see it and to feel it now in London particularly but yesterday particularly around Manchester and we are very sure there are levels growing across most communities in the UK now, although there is quite a lot of regional variation still.’ 

She made the shocking claim that Omicron was doubling every 1.9 days — much faster than Delta at its peak, which was doubling every seven days.

Dr Harries said: ‘I think we now have so many cases across the community that that is less relevant and as I say in most areas it is now settling to somewhere around 1.9 days.

‘It is difficult to predict where it will go, it is a very unusual variant.’

It came after Professor Medley, who chairs the SPI-M modelling group that feeds into SAGE and has been heavily criticised in the past for over-egging Covid waves, said it was possible the NHS could be overwhelmed next month with the current curbs that are in place. 

Speaking in a personal capacity, Professor Medley told BBC Radio 4 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.’

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.’

Is London taking ITSELF into lockdown? 

Parts of London’s West End were effectively in lockdown today as theatre shows were suspended and pubs and restaurant suffered a wave of cancellations triggered by mounting fears over the new Covid variant sweeping the capital.

Big-budget productions from The Lion King at the Lyceum to Life of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre halted performances due to virus outbreaks among their cast and crew – a decision which is costing producers hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Comedy Of Errors at the Barbican and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in Wembley were also cancelled, while the National Theatre postponed a preview of Hex after a lead actor caught the virus.

Others which have been suspended include The Rhythmics at Southwark Playhouse, Force Majeure at Donmar Warehouse and Fair Play at the Bush Theatre. Moulin Rouge at Piccadilly Theatre also suspended shows but has now restarted.

Restaurants and pubs in the West End have been left ‘devastated’ by people cancelling bookings due to fears over the spread of the so-called ‘Omicron’ variant, which has become the dominant Covid strain in London.

Professor 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.’

Professor 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.’ 

Despite pressure from within his own scientific ranks, Mr Johnson is not expected to announce new Covid curbs tonight after he defended the current Plan B restrictions as ‘proportionate’ in the Commons this afternoon at Prime Minister’s Questions.

There are questions about whether the PM would even be able to push through more stringent curbs, given that nearly 100 Tories rebelled against Plan B in a stinging blow to his authority.   

‘I respect and understand the legitimate anxieties that colleagues have about restrictions on …liberties,’ Johnson told parliament during its weekly prime minister’s questions session.

‘But I believe that the approach that we are taking is balanced and proportionate and right for this country,’ he said, adding that he would continue to ‘get on with the job’ when asked if he would resign. 

Ms Sturgeon has said the backbench rebellion by Tory MPs was ‘dangerous’ as it could undermine Boris Johnson’s ability to make tough decisions on the pandemic.

The First Minister questioned whether Mr Johnson had the authority from his own party to pass measures to tackle coronavirus. 

Scotland has had mandatory masks in most indoor settings for months and on Tuesday Ms Sturgeon advised people to limit socialising to just three households.

The Welsh Government has also warned it could announce some further Covid restrictions for the Christmas period due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

There is also growing pressure on Mr Johnson to enforce local lockdown curbs in London, which has quickly become England’s Omicron capital.  

Professor Tim Spector said infections in London were now rising at their fastest rate since the first wave. The above graph shows the app's estimates for cases in the city, and reveals they are ticking up at about the same rate as when Delta emerged

Professor Tim Spector said infections in London were now rising at their fastest rate since the first wave. The above graph shows the app’s estimates for cases in the city, and reveals they are ticking up at about the same rate as when Delta emerged

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

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

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 

Covid cases in London are surging upwards amid the spread of the Omicron variant which now makes up more than 50 per cent of daily infections in the city. Case numbers are the highest they have been since January

Covid cases in London are surging upwards amid the spread of the Omicron variant which now makes up more than 50 per cent of daily infections in the city. Case numbers are the highest they have been since January

Patient hospital admissions with Covid in London are also beginning to rise, but this is a lagging indicator because of the time taken for someone who has caught the virus to fall seriously ill

Patient hospital admissions with Covid in London are also beginning to rise, but this is a lagging indicator because of the time taken for someone who has caught the virus to fall seriously ill

Covid deaths in the capital are still flat. But these are also lagging indicators

Covid deaths in the capital are still flat. But these are also lagging indicators

Transport Secretary warns it is ‘inevitable’ that people will need three jabs to go on holiday 

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.’

Meanwhile travellers currently detained in quarantine hotels in the UK will be told later today when they will be released.

Jonathan Mogford, the senior responsible officer for the managed quarantine service at the UK Health Security Agency, was questioned about reports some people were fleeing the hotels after the red list was scrapped in England at 4am.

Mr Mogford told the Commons Transport Committee: ‘The standard practice has been that if you have started hotel quarantine you need to complete it.

‘For this de-listing, where Omicron has moved unexpectedly fast, we want to release people early.

‘We are sorting out the arrangements for that as quickly as possible, we need to make sure we are not releasing Covid or Omicron-positive guests immediately.’

Britain out of lateral flow tests: Grant Shapps blames ‘distribution issues’ as website says there are ‘no delivery slots’ left and pharmacies are told they can’t have extra swabs despite entire cities running out 

Grant Shapps today blamed ‘distribution issues’ on the lack of lateral flow tests as the Government website revealed delivery slots had run out and pharmacies were told they couldn’t have extra swabs despite entire cities running out.

In an uncomfortable interview with Sky News, the Transport Secretary today claimed there are enough lateral flow tests to go around – despite the Government’s own website yesterday saying there were ‘no tests available to order for home delivery’.

Instead he said the issue had been getting the tests out to people. Mr Shapps said health chiefs were working with Royal Mail, Amazon and other delivery firms to get tests out to homes and pharmacies.

Squirming as he answered a question from Sky New’s Kay Burley, he said: ‘Just on lateral flow tests, which actually, uniquely, in that as far as I can see there aren’t other countries that have been supplying these free of charge to their citizens, major economies haven’t generally been doing this, and we have in this country, you are right, particularly since the new measures, the booster programme, asking people to be testing, came in, it can be difficult at different times of day to get those.

A spokesman for the London 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’.

Hospitalisations in London have also started to tick upwards, rising 50 per cent in a fortnight. But the raw numbers still stand at around 150 a day, compared to nearly 1,000 during the darkest days of the capital’s second wave in January. Deaths remain flat at around 10 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, meaning the worst of the rapid spread — which has yet to show any signs of slowing down — won’t be felt until the New Year. 

Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London who runs the country’s largest Covid symptom study, claimed that hospitalisations in London are now surging at their fastest rate since the end of the first wave of the pandemic.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘If we look at our regional charts, we see London really accelerating more than we have really seen it anytime since the first wave.’

But figures from his own Covid Symptom Study, which has more than a million daily contributors, suggest Covid cases in the capital are not rising faster than last winter when the Alpha variant took hold.

During the first month of the Omicron wave cases in the capital have risen by almost a third, the study says, from 7,626 to 9,856 estimated daily infections.

But during the first month of the Alpha wave last winter Covid infections surged by 71 per cent from 7,694 to 13,228 daily infections. When Delta emerged the app estimates cases also rose by a third from 6,483 to 8,380. 

Separate data from the Department of Health’s Covid dashboard also shows cases in the capital are not rising faster than when Delta or Alpha took hold.

It suggests cases in the capital have doubled since the Omicron wave began, with the seven-day average for cases rising from 3,024 to 6,119.6 daily infections.

But when Alpha took hold it shows infections quadrupled over the same period from 1,985 to 10,725. And when the Delta wave began they rose three-fold from 243 to 954. 

The beginning of the waves was set as the low-point in infections before they spiralled. 

For the ZOE Symptom Study app, this was November 11 for the Omicron wave, June 13 for Delta and December 2 last year for Alpha. And for the Department of Health figures this was November 4 for Omicron, May 14 for Delta and November 23 last year for Alpha. 

Covid infections are rising from a higher base now than when Alpha took hold, which may explain why the new variant is not causing cases to spiral as quickly.

More Britons also have immunity against the virus now than when Delta and Alpha emerged through either vaccination or past infection, which may also be helping to slow the spread of the virus.   

Doctors on the frontlines in South Africa had suggested Omicron was triggering more mild disease among patients.

Official figures from the country showed that although hospitalisations rose at a similar level to when Delta took hold, there were fewer people on ventilators and in the emergency units.

But it is yet to be clear whether the variant is more mild because more people now have immunity against the virus than when Delta took hold. 

South Africa has a lower vaccination rate than the UK with 25 per cent of people double-jabbed, but most have already caught the virus there. Experts warn it is difficult to make comparisons between the two countries because in South Africa most people are young, whereas the UK has a much older population.

Professor Spector said: ‘Omicron is the predominant variant already [in the capital] and will be at 100 per cent very soon, that’s happened in just a matter of days really and that’s why so many people are going down with infections.’

He added: ‘We’re also tracking non-Covid viruses and currently across the country it is about one in four. 

‘[But] in London where Covid is increasing rapidly it is far more likely to be Covid than it is to be a cold.’ 

On Omicron’s symptoms, Professor Spector said: ‘The majority of symptoms are just like a common cold, so we’re talking about headaches, sore throat , runy nose, fatigue, and things like sneezing. 

‘Things like fever and cough and loss of smell are actually now in the minority of symptoms that we’re seeing.’

He said there were ‘no real differences’ between Covid symptoms currently being reported in London now and those from a month ago before Omicron took hold.

Asked whether the virus was triggering more severe disease, he said: ‘We are not seeing any severe disease, we are not seeing any unusual symptoms that people have reported in South Africa.

‘It’s looking very similar, it’s looking very respiratory. It’s looking mild at the moment and it’ll be a while before we know exactly how mild because most of the cases are still in the young.

‘But we are getting breakthrough infections in people who are having two or three vaccinations, and that’s more than we saw before.

‘When we look at regions with high and low Omicron we are seeing more breakthrough infections in London where there is high Omicron.’ 

London could soon face more restrictions, reports suggest, as ministers mull over ‘Plan C’ measures introducing more curbs on people’s daily lives. 

A spokesman for the mayor Sadiq Khan said yesterday: ‘Cases of Omicron are rising sharply in London and with so much at stake, it is better that we act now to safeguard the public and help reduce pressures on NHS services.

‘Londoners will see vaccine centres working around the clock, more local pop-up sites coming online near them, and [the Mayor] will use all of our resources at City Hall to ensure that all of London’s communities are encouraged to take up this lifesaving vaccine. 

More hope from ground zero: Cases in Omicron-stricken South African province are FALLING despite huge increase in testing, official data shows as ex-Government adviser says strain is just like the flu

Omicron infections may have already peaked in the South African epicentre, fresh data suggested today as an ex-Government Covid adviser claimed the UK’s incoming outbreak may be no worse than flu.

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

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

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

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

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

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 

Covid cases in South Africa jumped by 81 per cent in a week yesterday with another 23,884 recorded in the last 24 hours

Covid cases in South Africa jumped by 81 per cent in a week yesterday with another 23,884 recorded in the last 24 hours

This chart shows daily Covid cases as reported for South Africa's nine provinces yesterday. Gauteng is still seeing the most Covid cases reported every day

This chart shows daily Covid cases as reported for South Africa’s nine provinces yesterday. Gauteng is still seeing the most Covid cases reported every day

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

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.

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.    

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.

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.

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