Omicron is milder, studies suggest — but fears remain for NHS as case numbers skyrocket

Milder illness could still be cancelled out by ‘alarming’ rate of infection, scientists warn

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Thursday 23 December 2021 14:33 GMT

The Omicron wave appears to be milder than that of the Delta variant, with those infected 40 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital, according to two preliminary studies published on Wednesday.

But scientists warned that the reduction in severity could be cancelled out by the “alarming” rate at which Omicron is spreading, as the number of daily infections soared past 100,000 for the first time since the pandemic began.

The number of daily hospital admissions is also at its highest level since February, fuelling fears the NHS could still be overwhelmed in the coming weeks.

Yet despite calls for No 10 to make clear its plan of action for the New Year, The Independent understands that Boris Johnson has pushed back a decision on whether measures will be needed, and what they make look like, until after Christmas.

Time is running out to act before 2022 arrives – next Wednesday is thought to be the last day MPs can be brought back to pass legislation in time for New Year’s Eve – as Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all announced new restrictions to tackle Omicron.

Locally, NHS trusts and leaders have been asked if they would be able to open temporary “field” hospitals due to fears over a shortage of beds in the coming weeks, with the number of Covid admissions continuing to climb.

Nationally, 1,061 people were hospitalised on Monday, according to NHS England – a 34 per cent week-on-week rise and the highest number for a single day since 19 February. Daily admissions during the second wave peaked at 4,134, on 12 January.

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose Imperial College London study suggests there is a 40 per cent risk reduction in hospitalisation from Omicron, said London in particular was seeing an “alarming rise” in both cases and the number of people being admitted to hospital.

Professor Mark Woolhouse, a co-author of a Scottish paper on the severity of Omicron, said: “An individual infection could be relatively mild for the vast majority of people, but the potential for all these infections to come at once and put serious strain on the NHS remains.”

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is also set to release its own data on the variant’s virulence in a technical briefing on Thursday, helping to provide more understanding of how health services in Britain might be impacted over winter.

The research from Imperial and Scotland suggests that fewer people infected with Omicron are requiring hospital treatment, compared to Delta and other variants.

However, both papers were based on a small number of cases and lacked data on the over-60s, who have yet to record the same infection rates as younger age groups.

The Imperial study said that people with Omicron are 15 to 20 per cent less likely to need admission to hospital, and 40 to 45 per cent less likely to require a stay of one night or more.

Scientists from the Scotland-wide study, called Early Pandemic Evaluation and Enhanced Surveillance of Covid-19, said the variant is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of hospitalisation.

Neither paper has yet to be peer reviewed.

It remains unclear whether Omicron is innately less virulent than its viral predecessors, or whether it appears so because of the high levels of immunity in the population.

Either way, scientists believe its transmissibility and ability to partially evade the immune response, leading to the mass infections of hundreds of thousands of people, will likely place severe pressures on the NHS. A total of 106,122 tested positive for Covid on Wednesday, though this figure is thought to be many times higher.

Dr Jim McMenamin, the national Covid-19 incident director for Public Health Scotland (PHS), labelled his study’s findings a “qualified good-news story”, but said that it was “important we don’t get ahead of ourselves”.

“The potentially serious impact of Omicron on a population cannot be underestimated,” he added. “And a smaller proportion of a much greater number of cases that might ultimately require treatment can still mean a substantial number of people who may experience severe Covid infections that could lead to potential hospitalisation.”

Professor Azra Ghan, a co-author of the Imperial paper, said the apparent lower severity of Omicron may be “offset” by its heightened ability to get around the body’s immunological defences, compared to Delta.

“[That] may actually end up offsetting the balance so that we’ll be in a similar position in terms of the overall severity profile and infections coming into hospital,” she said.

If Omicron continues to spread at its current rate, this will still pose “quite a challenge to the NHS”, Professor Ferguson said, but added that “we’re not talking about anything like we saw last year with overflowing intensive care units and ventilated beds”.

He said more data was needed before any firm conclusions over the severity of the variant could be drawn. The Scottish scientists said they won’t be able to provide a better picture until the new year.

Downing Street has argued against imposing further restrictions until the data is clearer. But such an approach has drawn criticism from the devolved nations, who have already opted to tighten measures.

The first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, where the “rule of six”, table service only and two-metre social distancing will be restored in hospitality settings from Boxing Day, tore into the indecision in London.

“I think that the UK government is in a state of paralysis about all of this,” Drakeford said, as he announced the restrictions on Wednesday.

Northern Ireland has ordered the closure of nightclubs from Sunday after reporting an all-time high of 3,231 cases on Wednesday. It has also limited restaurants to serve no more than six people per table.

In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has introduced new curbs on hospitality while live sports will be “effectively spectator free” for three weeks from Boxing Day, leaving England as an outlier.

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