The omicron variant of coronavirus seems to be more transmissible than the delta strain that has dominated in the UK for months, Downing Street said, as experts warned that a huge wave of Covid infections is on the way.
While it is too early to say whether the new variant is more dangerous, “early indications were that it was more transmissible than delta,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told his cabinet, according to transcript released by his office after senior ministers met on Tuesday 7 December.
The big question is whether the emerging picture of rapidly spreading community infections makes tighter rules on daily life more likely. So far, the government is reluctant to give a firm view.
However, there are signals that moving to Plan B – which includes the possible introduction of mandatory vaccine passports for certain venues and telling people to work from home – may be a decision Johnson and his team will have to consider sooner rather than later.
First, the numbers. Nine days ago, there were just two confirmed cases of omicron identified in the UK. By 7 December this stood at 437. That was an increase of 101 omicron infections since Monday, a rise of around 30 per cent in a day.
Experts believe there are likely to be far more cases than these official numbers can capture, with analysis from one academic suggesting there are now probably more than a thousand new omicron infections a day.
“It will certainly displace delta and overall case numbers will rise,” said Alastair Grant, a professor at the University of East Anglia, quoted in the Times.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Andrew Hayward, the director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said that cases of omicron were doubling every two or three days, compared to every two or three weeks for delta.
This means omicron can overtake delta very quickly and it is “extremely likely” the UK will be hit by a “very large wave of infections” of the omicron variant, he said.
If such a wave comes, it could cause a very high peak of infections, putting strain on the NHS, even if the new variant is no more dangerous than delta. That is what has led Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to reinforce her government’s rules on working from home.
Employers should now take steps to make sure their workers are staying at home, wherever possible, Sturgeon said on 7 December. The new advice will apply until mid-January, she said.
In England, officials are still waiting for more data on whether the variant escapes the existing vaccines, among other factors, before deciding whether to tighten the rules.
As has been true for most of the past year, the UK is in a race to vaccinate faster than the new strain of the virus can spread. Johnson told the cabinet that booster vaccines were the best line of defence against omicron.
This time, however, the booster programme is proving slower to roll out while the omicron variant seems to be spreading more quickly.
While 81 per cent of the population aged 12 and over have been vaccinated with two doses, only 36 per cent have had their booster shots. Downing Street said the NHS was on course to meet its target of offering booster shots to every adult by the end of January. But Labour said the roll-out should be sped up amid concerns it is not progressing quickly enough.
[See also: The global race to contain Omicron]