Omicron variant could see ‘very large wave of infections’, leaked Sage report warns

‘Very stringent’ rules may be needed, top government advisers warn

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 01 December 2021 10:44
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Javid says new Covid rules could last less than three weeks

The omicron variant could see a “very large wave” of Covid infections in the UK and may need “stringent” rules to protect the NHS, according to leaked minutes of a meeting of top government advisers.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) believes it is “highly likely” that the new variant can escape immunity from existing vaccines “to some extent”.

Official notes from the Sage meeting, shared with the BBC, warned: “Any significant reduction in protection against infection could still result in a very large wave of infections.”

The stark warning added: “This would in turn lead to a potentially high number of hospitalisations even with protection against severe disease being less affected.”

Although the Sage scientists remain unsure how big a wave of omicron infection might be, they warned that a “very stringent response measures” may be needed by Boris Johnson’s government to ease the pressure on the NHS.

The Sage advisers also said a tightening of existing travel rules so pre-departure testing for travellers returning to the UK would be “valuable”, according to the BBC.

Labour has already called on the government to reintroduce pre-departure Covid tests for anyone travelling to the UK, demanding “strong action at the border now”.

Yvette Cooper MP, Labour’s shadow home secretary, responding to leaked minutes by saying: “It is totally unacceptable that ministers are failing to take action at the border when even their own advisors are telling them to introduce pre-departure tests.”

The minutes also show that the Sage advisers believe the government’s existing policy of a single PCR test within two days of arrival will “identify significantly fewer cases” than an extra test on either day five or day eight after arrival.

Both the Scottish and Welsh governments have already urged No 10 to “toughen” rules so travellers are asked to self-isolate at home until they receive a negative test result after eight days. “It would be sensible,” said SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.

A spokesperson for the government did not deny the leaked minutes were genuine, adding: “We continue to monitor the situation closely and will not hesitate to take further action if necessary.”

Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “At all times we take note of any clinical advice we receive and then we make a balanced judgement. We need to strike the right balance between protecting lives and livelihoods. We are confident this is the right approach.”

The government’s Sage advisers say it is too early to know how Omicron may effect the seriousness of illness experienced by those who contract the variant.

But the minutes of their Monday meeting also warn: “It is important to be prepared for a potentially very significant wave of infections with associated hospitalisations now, ahead of data being available.”

Health secretary Sajid Javid said on Wednesday it was possible that vaccines were less effective against the Omicron variant, but they should still protect against serious disease.

Results of lab studies on omicron and its impact on vaccines are expected in the coming weeks. Mr Javid said the government was confident that “within two weeks that we can know a lot more about this”.

Asked on LBC about reports that it could take six months to tweak the vaccine against omicron, Mr Javid said: “Look, the truth is … no one really knows about such things. First of all, what does Omicron actually mean?”

He added: “From what we do know from – let’s call it a desktop analysis – we know it’s got lots of mutations, we know that it’s concerning scientists about its infectiousness rate, about potentially its impact on vaccines.”

Mr Javid also said the NHS is working to suspend some of the workload of GPs so they can concentrate on expanding the booster vaccination programme.

“The NHS is working on that right now with GP representatives,” the health secretary told BBC Breakfast.

“I am confident that they will work out a way where some of the workload of GPs can be temporarily suspended or GPs can be helped in other ways.”

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