Omicron already makes up 30 per cent of new Covid cases in London, according to confidential data given to ministers that underlines the severity of the situation Britain faces in the run-up to Christmas as fears grow that even tougher restrictions may be needed.
UK leaders today were dragged into a Cobra meeting to discuss the next logical steps in fighting the pandemic, and analyse the most up-to-date evidence on the super-mutant strain.
Communities Secretary Michael Gove, who held the briefing virtually after testing positive himself, warned the current crisis was ‘deeply concerning’, naming London and Scotland as hotspots. He described the latest data presented to the devolved nations as ‘very challenging new information’.
Stark projections show the super-mutant variant could become dominant within days, prompting concerns that Boris Johnson will have no choice but to hit the panic button once more.
Concerning government data has shown that millions of Britons have effectively no protection against the Omicron Covid variant without a booster jab, leading to experts to suggest the virus could ‘substantially overwhelm the NHS’ this Christmas.
Government scientists compared 581 cases of Omicron in Britain with 56,000 of Delta to give preliminary estimates of how well vaccines protect against a variant with mutations that help it evade the body’s immune response.
They found that the mostly elderly people who had two doses of AstraZeneca several months ago had almost no protection against Omicron infection, and two Pfizer doses offered little more than 30 per cent.
But a third dose, if using Pfizer, can take protection levels back up to 71 per cent in those who had AstraZeneca the first time around and 76 per cent for those who had Pfizer.
This has led experts to urge people to get their third jabs, but many eligible over-40s have been unable to book appointments until Christmas Eve due to chaos on the booking site.
No10 has already brought in its back-up Plan B strategy, reimposing work-from-home guidance and making face masks compulsory in more venues. Officials have repeatedly refused to rule out acting further.
Tougher options could replicate ones introduced last Christmas in the face of the second wave, which effectively cancelled Christmas for millions living in areas worst-hit by Alpha, such as London.
London also appears to be faring badly this time around, with Omicron thought to blame for Government data showing the capital has the England’s fastest growing Covid outbreak. All of the city’s 32 boroughs are seeing cases tick upwards, and Omicron has been found in every corner of the city.
Hospitalisations and deaths in the capital remain flat but both measures lag behind by several weeks because of how long it can take for someone who has caught the virus to become seriously unwell.
Public health chiefs in the capital say they are taking the new threat ‘extremely seriously’, and that it could take over in the city in as little as two weeks.
The above shows the percentage change in the Covid infection rate across London’s 32 boroughs in the week ending November 27, and December 4. Cases are surging in every borough. For comparison, a month ago they were only rising in 10
But hospitalisations in the city are yet to tick up and remain level with around 110 new admissions recorded every day on average, according to the latest data. But in a sign of what could be to come on December 7, the latest available, there were 148 admissions which was a 40 per cent rise on the same time last week
London’s Covid deaths are also yet to tick up, official data shows. But these are lagging indicators because it takes a few weeks for someone who has caught Covid to become seriously unwell and sadly die from the disease
The number of PCR tests carried out in London has risen 15 per cent in a week but the positivity rate — the number that detect the virus — has remained level suggesting there is a real-terms surge in cases. The above graph shows the number of lateral flow tests completed which has remained level so far
The above graph shows Covid cases in London. They are starting to tick up as the more transmissible Omicron variant begins to spread in the capital
The above graph shows the % change in London’s average infection rate. The capital has the fastest growing outbreak in the country, after Omicron was detected in every borough
Scotland is the other Omicron hotspot, with concerns of a ‘tsunami’ of cases prompting Nicola Sturgeon to today introduce stricter self-isolation rules. Announcing that entire families will now have to self isolate if one member of their household tests positive for the virus, she said the variant could become dominant within days.
Speaking following this afternoon’s Cobra briefing, Mr Gove said: ‘The meeting I’ve just chaired with First Ministers of all the devolved administrations was presented with some very challenging new information.
‘We know that we have the highest number of Covid infections across the UK recorded today since January 9. We know the Omicron variant is doubling every two to three days in England, and possibly even faster in Scotland.
‘We know that 30 per cent of reported cases in London are the Omicron variant and of course we only identified Omicron in this country a fortnight ago.’
Meanwhile, Britain’s total Omicron cases surged by 54 per cent in a day with another 448 confirmed. It took the official toll past 1,200 but health chiefs admit the true figure will be up to 20 times higher, with surveillance data suggesting it already makes up at least 10 per cent of new cases – the equivalent of 4,000 people per day.
It comes after Britain’s Covid cases rose 15 per cent in a week today with another 58,194 recorded as the mutant strain takes hold. Hospitalisations rose by six per cent in seven days with 839 admissions, and deaths fell by more than a tenth.
But in a promising sign a study found booster jabs may be 70 to 75 per cent effective at stopping infections with the Omicron variant.
Boosters DO beat Omicron and cut risk of falling ill by 75%
Booster Covid jabs offer up to 75 per cent protection against mild illness caused by the super Omicron variant, official UK Government analysis revealed tonight.
Experts are confident that three doses will provide significantly greater immunity against severe illness and death from the highly-evolved strain.
In people who had their second dose more than three months ago, effectiveness against symptomatic disease could be lower than 40 per cent for Pfizer and virtually zero for AstraZeneca.
But officials stress that even two vaccines should still offer high protection against severe illness, in the most promising sign yet that the incoming wave of hospital admissions and deaths will not surpass previous peaks.
There is now growing optimism among No10 scientists that Plan B restrictions and the booster campaign will be enough to avoid more draconian curbs. It was also confirmed that none of the UK’s 1,265 Omicron infections have led to hospital admission or death so far.
The real-world analysis by the UK Health Security Agency looked at 581 people with confirmed Omicron and compared their vaccine status to a control group of people who tested positive for Delta.
It estimated that a Pfizer booster provides between 70 and 75 per cent protection against mild Omicron illness, regardless of which vaccine was originally used, compared to 90 per cent for Delta.
Two doses of Pfizer may offer just 37 per cent protection after three-and-a-half months compared to 60 per cent for Delta. Two shots of AstraZeneca offered virtually no protection after the same amount of time.
But the scientists caution that data for AstraZeneca was less reliable due to the fact the vaccine was restricted in some age groups and typically used at the very start of the initial vaccine rollout in vulnerable people.
UKHSA experts who carried out the study said that while it was disappointing that Omicron weakened existing jabs to some extent, the new variant is not as vaccine-evasive as initially feared.
Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard shows infections in London rose by 25.3 per cent in the week to December 4, the latest available.
This was the quickest out of England’s nine regions, with London followed by the East (up 16.8 per cent) and the South East (13.4 per cent).
At the other end of the scale, cases are rising by 6.8 per cent in the North East and 7.6 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber.
The figures are based on specimen date, or when someone tested positive. For this reason, the statistics always lag behind the current situation by around five days.
London’s infection rate — the number of cases per 100,000 people spotted in a week — stood at 474.7 in the most recent week of data.
This means it is the highest since January, when Britain was in the darkest depths of the second wave but had yet to mount any serious vaccination programme.
PCR testing rates have jumped slightyl but the positivity rate has remained at eight per cent, suggesting the rise is genuine.
But in more proof that vaccines have drastically changed the game, hospitalisations in the capital are just a fraction of rates seen during previous peaks.
On average, 117 Covid-infected Brits are being admitted to hospital in London each day currently. This is up 22 per cent from a fortnight ago, when Omicron was first detected in South Africa.
But Covid deaths in the capital are still hovering around 10 a day, with the elderly and immunocompromised known to be most at risk of dying.
Long-awaited figures from the UKHSA show 890 suspected or confirmed Omicron cases have been detected in the capital to date, with it spotted in every borough.
Omicron cases are confirmed via genome sequencing. But PCR tests can also indicate someone is infected with the mutant strain. The gold-standard swabs search for three genes to confirm a Covid infection. But in Omicron one of these does not show up, suggesting that someone is infected with this variant.
Barking and Dagenham have the most Omicron cases in the capital (55), followed by Greenwich and Lewisham (both 53) and Newham (52).
Omicron will be behind virtually every coronavirus infection in Scotland within 10 days, shocking latest forecasts showed as Nicola Sturgeon warned of an incoming ‘tsunami’ of variant cases and slapped Scots with more curbs.
Steeling the country for worse to come she said at a gloomy press conference: ‘The fact is we do face a renewed and very severe challenge in the face of the new Omicron variant.
‘To be blunt, because of the much greater and faster transmissibility of this new variant, we may be facing – indeed we may be starting to experience – a potential tsunami of infections.’
She added: ‘Indeed, I think we can now say with some confidence that we expect it to overtake Delta within days, not weeks – we estimate this could be as early as the very beginning of next week.’
Confidential UK Health Security Agency data showed that Omicron may now be behind 8.5 per cent of infections. The figures are based on the proportion of PCR tests failing to detect a specific gene, an early indicator of the variant. PCRs 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 analysis was done by Professor Alastair Grant, a Covid modeller at the University of East Anglia, who has access to the secret statistics
Omicron makes up 13.3 per cent of Covid cases in Scotland and is doubling every two to three days
The above map shows the ten areas that have the most confirmed and suspected Omicron cases in England, according to the UK Health Security Agency. West Northamptonshire is the country’s hotspot for the mutant strain, although eight in ten areas on the list are in London
The above map shows the Covid infection rate across London by neighbourhoods, or middle-layer super output areas (MSOAs). Un the dark purple areas the rate is above 800 cases per 100,000 people, while in the purple areas it is between 400 and 799 cases per 100,000. The dark blue areas have a rate between 200 and 399 cases per 100,000
This map shows the proportion of people who are double-vaccinated against Covid in the capital. It reveals that there has been much lower jab uptake in inner city areas than on the outskirts
Scottish Government projections estimate the ultra-infectious strain will overtake Delta to become the dominant strain as soon as Tuesday and will account for more than 90 per cent of infections by December 20.
Omicron makes up 13.3 per cent of Covid cases already in Scotland, which has become a hotspot for the super-strain along with London, but it’s doubling every two days.
Scotland today reported 5,018 positive Covid tests, which is the highest number in three months and double the number a week ago.
Ms Sturgeon told a coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh at lunchtime that as of yesterday at 5pm there were 110 confirmed Omicron cases in Scotland and 10 days ago the number was just nine.
She warned the latest figure is likely to be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and the data suggests the current spread of Omicron represents the ‘fastest exponential growth that we have seen in this pandemic so far’.
No10 is also reportedly considering a tougher ‘Plan C’ to tackle Omicron, which could see care homes slapped with fresh restrictions in the run up to Christmas and masks made compulsory in pubs and restaurants.
Controversial vaccine passports could also be extended to more venues as part of the contingency measures being floated within Downing Street if the Omicron super variant proves to be as dangerous as scientists fear.
A Government source said it was ‘very likely’ care home residents could be banned from seeing more than three visitors over the festive period to prevent another explosive outbreak in the sector.
But campaign groups warned the plans could be ‘devastating’ and ‘heartbreaking’, with many families forced to pick loved ones on what could be their last Christmas.
No10 insists it has ‘no plans’ for a Plan C or a circuit breaker lockdown over Christmas. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said: ‘We think the Plan B measures are the right approach and strike the right balance.’
The first part of the Government’s Plan B came into force today with the introduction of compulsory face masks in indoor settings such as theatres, cinemas and churches. New work-from-home guidance will come into effect on Monday, and MPs will vote on Tuesday on the introduction of vaccine passports for nightclubs and large venues.