Covid cases surge again to new record as Johnson warns Omicron now a ‘very serious threat’

Infections across UK surpass 93,000 as London borough sees tally more than double in just a week

Tom Batchelor,Grace Almond
Friday 17 December 2021 16:04
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Related video: What you need to know about Omicron

The number of Covid cases in the UK broke records for a third consecutive day on Friday after infections crept above 90,000 for the first time since March 2020, with the fast-spreading Omicron variant intensifying concerns over the trajectory of the pandemic.

Surging cases prompted Boris Johnson to warn that the highly infectious variant was “a very serious threat to us now”.

“We are seeing a considerable wave coming through and people have got to be prepared and they have got to understand what it entails,” the prime minister said during a visit to a vaccination centre in Hillingdon, in his west London constituency.

Of the 93,045 new infections over the last 24 hours – and 111 more deaths – the UK Health Security Agency said an additional 3,201 Omicron variant cases had been detected, taking the total number to 14,909.

Omicron is now the dominant variant among new cases of coronavirus in England, which also has the most relaxed rules out of all UK nations, analysis has found.

The London borough of Lambeth continues to have the highest Covid rate in the UK, with 4,021 new cases in the seven days to 13 December. That is the equivalent of 1,249.5 per 100,000 people, more than double the 539.1 in the previous seven days.

As the virus continues to spread in London, the number of people in hospital with Covid across the capital rose to 1,534, up 28.6 per cent on last week, government figures showed. In the UK as a whole, 7,611 people are in hospital with the virus, a rise of 163 patients (2 per cent) on the previous week.

Across the border in Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that an Omicron “tsunami” was hitting the country, with a predicted R number above four and around half of cases now linked to the new variant.

In Wales, first minister Mark Drakeford confirmed an earlier announcement that nightclubs and late-night bars will close from 27 December to combat the risk of superspreader events over the new year.

And in Ireland, where the Omicron variant now makes up more than a third (35 per cent) of Covid cases, hospitality venues, cinemas and theatres will be asked to close at 8pm from Monday.

Without clear government guidance in England on whether social events should take place this Christmas, the hospitality industry has reported a wave of cancellations sparked by the deteriorating Covid situation.

The leader of Westminster City Council said people cancelling plans in the run-up to the festive period was having a “devastating” impact on London’s West End.

Mr Johnson acknowledged that there needed to be “swift engagement with the Treasury” on Covid support funds during a phone call with Ms Sturgeon, and an emergency Cobra meeting will be held over the weekend with the devolved administrations to discuss the response to Omicron.

New research published on Friday suggested Omicron largely evades immunity from past a coronavirus infection or two vaccine doses, and confirmed boosters were key to mitigating the impact of the variant.

The risk of reinfection with Omicron is 5.4 times greater than that of the Delta variant, according to researchers at Imperial College London. This suggests the protection against reinfection by Omicron from past infection may be as low as 19 per cent.

Elsewhere, the pandemic continued to cause reverberations throughout Westminster after the cabinet secretary Simon Case “recused himself” from an inquiry into Christmas parties in government during lockdown after it was alleged gatherings were held in his own department.

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