A large wave of Covid hospitalisations should be expected “soon” and could be worse than last winter, the UK government’s top scientific advisors have warned.
Data suggesting that the Omicron variant might cause less severe illness than the Delta strain raised hopes that further restrictions may not be necessary after Christmas.
However, in a gloomy assessment published late on Christmas Eve, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) group said a “large wave” of hospitalisations “should be expected soon given infections are increasing rapidly”.
The minutes from the Sage meeting on 23 December also warned that the peak in admissions this winter “may be comparable to or higher than previous peaks”.
The Sage experts advising Boris Johnson’s government warned that Omicron had so far largely spread among younger people less likely to get seriously ill – but said hospitalisations would now rise “as infections move into older age groups”.
The pre-Christmas meeting of chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and the others on Sage said there was “an apparent slowing of growth rates” of Covid across the UK.
However, the group also warned that “doubling times in most of the country are still in the region of 2 – 3 days and, importantly, test positivity rates are still rising”.
It follows UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief Jenny Harries saying there was a “glimmer of Christmas hope” in the data published on Thursday suggesting Omicron might cause less severe illness than the Delta variant.
The UKHSA estimated that someone with Omicron is 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital than an individual with Delta.
Mr Johnson has put off making a decision on whether to introduce further restrictions beyond Plan B measures until after Christmas.
The prime minister is expected to review the latest data on Monday. He may also have to decide whether to impose new curbs by Tuesday at the latest if he wants to recall parliament and allow MPs to have their say on any restrictions needed over New Year.
The latest minutes showed Sage scientists warning the government that “the earlier interventions happen, and the more stringent they are, the more likely they are to be effective”.
Any new restrictions introduced by Mr Johnson could be in place until late March under measures examined by the government’s scientific advisers.
The latest modelling by a Sage sub-group considered a package of measures including a ban on socialising with another household indoors and a return to the rule of six outdoors, in line with the Step 2 restrictions in place in England earlier this year.
A consensus paper published by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational (Spi-M-O) sub-group said “rapidly enacted Step 2 measures reduce the peak of hospital pressure to about half its level under Plan B only”.
Hospital admissions due to Covid have nearly doubled week-on-week in London, the latest figures show.
New data from NHS England shows that 386 Covid admissions were recorded by London hospitals on 22 December, up 92 per cent week-on-week and the highest number for a single day since 1 February.
Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie hold video call with Dr Laura Mount on Christmas Day
(Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street)
Meanwhile, queues have formed at pharmacies as people wait to get Christmas Day jabs. People were seen waiting for their “jingle jabs” as the vaccination booster programme continued over the festive period in England.
NHS England has thanked health service staff who are working or volunteering on Christmas Day, while health secretary Sajid Javid urged people to “make the booster a part of your Christmas this year”.
Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie were pictured on a sofa at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence, speaking to NHS vaccination “heroes” on Christmas Day.