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22 December 2021

Is Omicron milder than previous Covid variants?

What Omicron loses in lethality it might make up for in greater transmissibility, which would still put pressure on the NHS.

By Stephen Bush

Is Omicron milder than previous variants? The simple answer is “yes”, at least that’s the finding from both the UK Health Security Agency’s work, obtained exclusively by Politico’s Alex Wickham, and from South Africa. It appears that the new variant is less likely to result in hospitalisation and death than previous variants.

But the more complicated answer is “well, it depends”. At the moment, it’s impossible to disentangle the effect of a new variant from the effect of a population where large numbers of people have been vaccinated and/or had previous variants of Covid.

Large numbers of people in the UK have had Covid and had two or three jabs, which is a similar situation to South Africa, where many people have had the Delta variant and around a third of the population has been inoculated. A less severe outbreak in the UK and South Africa might not mean that Omicron would be “mild” in New Zealand if what looks like an Omicron effect is actually a vaccine and antibody effect.

And of course, while what matters at a individual level is our own risk, the real danger of Covid-19 has always been its impact on healthcare capacity. In October, the government announced that there were around 6,000 critical care beds available in England for Covid patients. If you have six million Covid cases at the same time, and of those a mere 0.001 of them require a critical care bed: bang! You’ve got no critical care beds left. And what is not yet clear is whether or not what Omicron loses in lethality it makes up for in greater transmissibility and thus greater pressure on healthcare capacity.

That’s the known unknown of Omicron. What we do know, of course, is that large parts of the UK are locking down anyway: and that Rishi Sunak’s support measures, at a maximum of £6,000 per premises, are highly unlikely to be sufficient to help large numbers of businesses survive through the winter.

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