Britons have been told they should cut back socialising now to preserve their hopes of a proper family Christmas Day, as coronavirus infections hit a record high and scientists warned that a large wave of omicron will put the NHS under strain within weeks.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty told a Downing Street press conference that the new variant of Covid-19 was “moving at an absolutely phenomenal pace” and that substantial numbers of cases needing hospitalisation intensive care were likely in the period following Christmas Day.
“Substantial gaps” can be expected in hospital staffing as doctors and nurses go down with omicron, he said, as another member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) scientific advisory panel warned there was a possibility of the NHS becoming “overwhelmed”.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Covid envoy, Dr David Nabarro said the British health service was in “an emergency situation”, with an “extraordinary acceleration” of cases likely to lead to an extremely serious situation over the last two weeks of December.
“I have never been more concerned than I am tonight, not just about the UK but about the world,” said Dr Nabarro.
Prime minster Boris Johnson said people should “think carefully” about socialising and said his own plans for his first Christmas with his new baby daughter were “pretty modest at this stage” because of the likely pressure of work.
He called on people to get vaccinations and booster jabs in a “great national fightback” against the disease. Boosters hit a daily record of 656,711 on Tuesday but remained well short of the 1 million a day needed to meet Mr Johnson’s pledge of giving them to everyone eligible by the end of the month.
Professor Whitty said he expected people would “deprioritise” non-essential gatherings to ensure being able to enjoy the most important events, which for most will be Christmas Day with family.
“I really think people should be prioritising those things – and only those things – that really matter to them,” he said. “Because otherwise the risk of someone getting infected at something that doesn’t really matter to them and then not being able to do the things that do matter to them obviously goes up.”
Official figures showed 78,610 new Covid infections across the UK in what Professor Whitty said was effectively “two epidemics on top of one another” as a rapidly growing wave of omicron cases is added to the stable but high numbers of people affected by the earlier delta strain.
“I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up,” said Professor Whitty.
“This is a really serious threat at the moment. How big a threat? There are several things we don’t know. But all the things that we do know are bad.”
With the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) estimating that omicron cases are doubling in less than two days, the chief medical officer said it would only be a short time before Britain sees “very, very, very large numbers” of infections.
“There will be substantial numbers and that that will begin to become apparent, in my view, fairly soon after Christmas,” he said. “It’ll start before them. But in terms of the big numbers, I think that’s a reasonably nailed-on prospect.”
And he made clear this would include substantial numbers of health and care staff.
“Very large numbers of people in society – and that includes doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers – are going to get Covid at the same time, because this will be a very sharp peak,” he said. “There will be significant problems actually providing staff.”
Giving evidence to a parliamentary committee earlier in the day, UKHSA chief executive Jenny Harries warned that omicron presented “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic”, warning that it could place the NHS in “serious peril”.
Dr Harries said that “quite staggering” numbers of infections can be expected in the coming days due to the highly contagious nature of the new strain, which “runs the risk of evading our natural and/or vaccine immunity”.
And she warned that the speed of spread was accelerating, with infections now doubling in less than two days in most parts of the UK, compared to an estimated four or five days when the threat first emerged.
UKHSA previously estimated that as many as 200,000 new infections with omicron took place in the UK on Monday, implying that cases could reach 1 million a day by the end of the week, with millions infected by 25 December.
Professor Whitty warned that the scale of the likely outbreak meant that “lots of people” are going to get sick, even if omicron turns out to be milder than earlier strains.
The director of Oxford University’s Rosalind Franklin Institute, Professor James Naismith, said that even if widespread immunity meant omicron was four times less likely than delta to cause severe disease, its rate of spread meant that it could cause double the number of daily hospitalisations within seven days.
“Unfortunately this is just the start,” said Professor Naismith. “Numbers are going to get much bigger very quickly.”
The unofficial independent Sage group of scientists and medics called for an immediate 10-day circuit-breaker lockdown in order to permit “limited” social mixing on 25-28 December.
Calling for the closure of indoor hospitality and entertainment venues and a ban on indoor mixing by different households in the run-up to Christmas, the group said in a statement: “Christmas is 10 days away – that’s five doublings at its current growth rate, making the situation potentially 32 times worse by then.
“The opportunity for early action has been lost and the time for further delay is over. The situation is so urgent we must take emergency action now and that means it is imperative to reduce contacts. Advice is no longer enough since it does not convey the urgency of the situation.”
But Mr Johnson declined to impose any new formal restrictions on pubs, restaurants on Christmas parties.
“What we are saying is think carefully before you go, what kind of an event is it, are you likely to meet people who are vulnerable, are you going to meet loads of people you haven’t met before, and get a test, make sure there’s ventilation, wear a mask on transport,” Mr Johnson said.
“We’re in a different environment thanks to the boosters from where we were last year but we’ve got to be cautious and think about it while we wait for the benefits of the boosters to really kick in.”
His comments sparked fury in the nightlife sector, which has seen mass cancellations of bookings as the threat from omicron became clear.
“With the prime minister appearing to lack the political will to impose actual restrictions and instead seeking to induce a pseudo-lockdown through repeated sombre-sounding announcements, our sector is now facing the worst of both worlds – a recent drop in trade and no government support to help us through,” said Michael Kill of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA).
And the president of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) called on chancellor Rishi Sunak to step in with financial support for businesses “seeing their vital festive income melt away in front of their eyes”.
“Businesses now face the two-punch combination of serious issues with staff absence and plummeting consumer confidence,” said baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith.
“Businesses have heard nothing from the Treasury since this new round of Covid interventions arrived over a week ago. Not even a rationale has been provided for why it believes no new support is required. They deserve better.”
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