‘Significant increase’ in omicron hospitalisations expected, warns Chris Whitty


Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has warned Boris Johnson to expect a “significant increase” in hospitalisations from the omicron variant of Covid-19 in the UK.

The warning came as the head of NHS Providers – which represents health trusts – told MPs that hospitals were preparing for a large rise in Covid patients over the Christmas period, at a time when the service is already “beyond full stretch”.

Mr Johnson told cabinet this morning that the UK can expect a “huge spike” of Covid cases as omicron becomes the dominant variant in the UK.

The highly contagious variant, first detected in South Africa, is thought to have become the dominant strain in hotspot London today and will “inevitably” soon overtake delta elsewhere in the country, said the prime minister’s official spokesperson.

Briefing the regular weekly meeting of cabinet, Prof Whitty told ministers that it was “too early to say” whether cases of the new strain were beginning to level off in South Africa after rising vertiginously in recent weeks. And he said there was “no reliable evidence” that the omicron wave has peaked in South Africa yet.

The regular weekly meeting of Mr Johnson’s most senior ministers was held virtually for the first time in several months, in recognition of the rapid increase in omicron infections – believed to have reached 200,000 a day in the UK – and the government’s new guidance to work from home if possible.

Cabinet was told that omicron continues to spread at a “concerning” rate, with almost 4,500 confirmed cases, 10 hospitalisations and one known death.

The number of confirmed cases is signficantly lower than the estimated current rate of infections because of the time lag between becoming infected, developing symptoms, taking a test and genome sequencing of the results.

Because omicron rates are believed to double every two or three days, total numbers of infections are always likely to outstrip confirmed cases by a massive factor.

Prof Whitty said it was not yet known how severe the new variant is, in terms of causing serious illness or death.

But he told cabinet that “we can expect a significant increase in hospitalisations as cases increase”, Mr Johnson’s spokesperson told reporters.

Meanwhile, NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson told the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus that trusts are expecting a rise in hospitalisations.

“If you have a very large number of people infected with omicron … it doesn’t take a particularly large percentage of people to be hospitalised before you get a large raw number of hospitalisations,” said Mr Hopson.

“The government wants to make vaccinations the absolute priority. We were already beyond full stretch … we’re now facing the prospect of significant number of hospitalisations probably starting within the next week to two weeks.

“Add all of that together, and there is a huge amount of pressure on the service.”

The PM’s spokesperson said that difficulties accessing lateral flow and PCR tests on Monday were caused by a sudden spike in demand following Mr Johnson’s address to the nation on Sunday evening, and were not due to any shortage in home-testing kits or delivery drivers.

Some 230,000 boxes containing 1.6m lateral flow tests were sent out on Monday, but the spike in demand surpassed the number of Royal Mail delivery slots available, said the spokesperson.

Arrangements are being made to increase capacity “significantly”, including by drawing on services from Amazon and other delivery companies, and kits should be available from pharmacies and other locations, he added.

The government is not requesting the public to hold back on posting Christmas cards and presents to free up capacity, as the two systems are entirely separate, he said.

And despite the expected surge in cases, there are currently no plans to restrict Christmas parties or get-togethers, though anyone attending a crowded event where they will mingle with people they do not normally meet is encouraged to take a test in advance.

Challenged over why the PM did not think it time to impose more stringent restrictions, the spokesperson said: “Thanks to the vaccination programme, particularly thanks to the booster programme, we have severely reduced the link between cases, severe illness and death.

“The impact of vaccinations and boosters on the omicron variant with regards to illness and death are still not known. And so it’s right that we strike a balanced and proportionate approach whilst we get further evidence on this variant.

“We are not being complacent, which is why we have brought forward so drastically the target for getting everyone boosted because that is the single biggest action we can take whilst we find out more about this variant.” ‘Significant increase’ in omicron hospitalisations expected, warns Chris Whitty


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