Omicron Covid wave could be worse than last winter without new lockdown, top UK scientists warn

Most pessimistic scenarios could see between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths over next five months without action

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 11 December 2021 17:01
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The omicron variant could cause a new wave of the pandemic worse than that seen last winter without a new lockdown, modelling by top UK scientists advising the government has found.

Scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) found that the variant could potentially cause higher levels of cases and hospitalisations than was seen in January 2021 if no action was taken – with as many as 75,000 deaths before April under the worst scenario

The researchers, who sit on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) or the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), say there is still a "a lot of uncertainty" about omicron's characteristics and that their research is yet to be peer-reviewed.

But Dr Rosanna Barnard from LSHTM’s Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, who co-led the study, said:

“In our most optimistic scenario, the impact of omicron in the early part of 2022 would be reduced with mild control measures such as working from home.

"However, our most pessimistic scenario suggests that we may have to endure more stringent restrictions to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed. Mask-wearing, social distancing and booster jabs are vital, but may not be enough."

She added: “Nobody wants to endure another lockdown, but last-resort measures may be required to protect health services if omicron has a significant level of immune escape or otherwise increased transmissibility compared to Delta. It is crucial for decision makers to consider the wider societal impact of these measures, not just the epidemiology.”

The team of researchers estimated that omicron was evading vaccines "by a substantial degree", and is likely to be anywhere between 10 per cent less transmissible or up to 35 more transmissible than than the existing Delta variant.

Under the most pessimistic scenario in the study they estimate there could be anywhere between 25,000 to 75,000 deaths in England over the next five months without any additional control measures. They say that omicron is expected to become the dominant variant in England before the end of this month.

The scientists say they have taken into account additional protection afforded by booster doses but that the picture could be improved if "a very high uptake of booster vaccines is achieved".

The researchers’ findings agree with other studies that boosters, and the scale and speed of the booster programme, will have a “large impact” on the results.

Dr Nick Davies from CMMID, who co-led the research, said: “These are early estimates, but they do suggest that overall omicron is outcompeting Delta rapidly by evading vaccines to a substantial degree. If current trends continue then omicron may represent half of UK cases by the end of December.

“Further analysis suggests that the booster programme is vital, with a counterfactual scenario with no boosters showing a peak in hospitalisations that could be as much as five times as high as the scenario with boosters.”

He told reporters that there was "pretty good evidence of exponential growth" of the variant in the data they analysed.

Dr Davies also said the latest data showed "a very fast rate of increase" and painted a picture that was "quite concerning".

But he said that “the case for further control measures is really not for us to decide”.

“We really need to leave that to the decision makers who will be weighing up a huge number of factors,” he said.

Other countries in Europe such as Austria and the Netherlands have moved towards new lockdown or partial lockdown measures.

The UK government has not floated the idea, however, and is instead reintroducing mask mandates and recommending people work from home.

Reacting to the study’s findings, Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said the new modelling called on the government to take urgent action to prevent health services from being overwhelmed.

“With both Ambulance and A&E services already stretched to breaking point, we cannot afford another huge surge in hospitalisations," she said.

“The Government must act quickly and set out its emergency plans to Parliament in the next 72 hours. It must urgently ramp up the booster programme, give frontline NHS staff the additional resources they need, guarantee financial protections for small businesses, particularly in hospitality, and ensure that everyone who needs it can access mental health support during these difficult times.”

A Government spokesperson said ministers “continue to look closely at all of the emerging data”

"We've been clear throughout that vital vaccines and boosters are our best line of defence against this virus and that is why we are urging people to come forward as quickly as possible as they become eligible,” the spokesperson said.

"Plan B remains a proportionate response based upon what we know, so we encourage everyone to follow the rules by wearing a face covering, working from home if you can, testing regularly and coming forward for your booster when called."

Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at University of East Anglia, said the LHSTM study was “well-designed and clearly presented”, but should be treated with caution because of the preliminary nature of the data.

"I suspect these models overstate risk of hospitalisation and deaths and the 'worst case' scenarios are unlikely to be seen," he said. "As better data becomes available in coming weeks we can expect these models to be refined.”

Meanwhile Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton said that "as things stand right now, the numbers highlighted by the LSHTM modelling group are alarming".

Dr Head said it had been a mistake to lift all Covid restrictions before the vaccine rollout had been completed. He also blamed a global failure not to share enough vaccines with poorer countries.

"We don’t know how often this coronavirus can change its clothes and emerge with a new look. Vaccinating the world is a huge demand, and we’ve seen that the world is not up to the task. That is a mistake – increasing equity in the global rollout is in everybody’s interests," he said.

“The coronavirus has not finished with us. A tactics of ‘turning the lights off and pretending we are not in’ is a failed policy."

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