Bullish Dominic Raab today insisted the government’s coronavirus ‘Plan B’ is still unnecessary despite increasingly grim warnings about the Omicron strain.
The deputy PM struck an optimistic note about Christmas in a round of interviews, saying the tougher restrictions are ‘not required’ due to the success of the vaccine programme.
The defiant stance came after Theresa May was cheered to the rafters by Tory MPs last night as she accused ministers of putting businesses at risk by ‘stopping and starting sectors of our economy’.
The ex-premier said the new mutation appeared to lead to less serious illness and the country must ‘learn to live with Covid’.
However, fresh doubts about the fate of the festive season were raised this morning as experts warned Omicron is spreading faster in the UK than expected.
Eminent epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector claimed infections with the variant were doubling every two days and that there were up to 2,000 cases already — five times more than the official count.
The King’s College London scientist, who runs the country’s largest symptom-tracking study, estimated that in 10 days’ time Britain will have more Omicron cases than most African countries at the epicentre of the new outbreak.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, head of Covid surveillance at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said Omicron was likely to become the UK dominant strain ‘within a matter of weeks’ rather than months like initially hoped.
But Mr Raab today rejected the idea of bringing in more curbs, such as orders to work from home or vaccine passports. ‘We don’t think Plan B is required,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. ‘Why? Because of the success of the vaccine programme.’
Mr Raab was more definitive than Boris Johnson who yesterday refused to rule out tightening restrictions over the festive period, merely insisting that Christmas will be ‘better’ than last year.
Scientists expect booster jabs to give high protection against severe illness and death from Omicron, even if the variant makes vaccines much less effective at preventing infection.
No10 announced last week that it plans to ramp up the booster programme to 500,000 jabs per day and offer a third dose to all 53million British adults by the end of January to shield against the incoming wave.
But the ‘turbocharged’ campaign already appears to be stalling with just 290,000 delivered across Britain. And, on average, just 378,000 are being administered each day.
Dominic Raab sent an optimistic note about Christmas in a round of interviews, saying the tougher restrictions are ‘not required’ due to the success of the vaccine programme
In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent
Theresa May (pictured) said in the Commons last night that Omicron appeared to lead to less serious illness than other variants and the Government should be ‘learning to live with Covid’. She added that an annual vaccine was the solution rather than ‘stopping and starting’ the economy which leads to ‘businesses going under and jobs being lost’
This is the image that has sparked fear among scientists, prompted ministers to turbocharge the UK’s booster vaccine rollout and seen the return of mask mandates in England. It details the new super-mutant Omicron variant’s spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet. The graphic, released by the country’s top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike
Scientists predicted just yesterday that it would take until mid-January for Omicron to outpace Delta but Monday saw the biggest single day jump in cases of the mutant virus yet. Ninety more people were diagnosed with Omicron in 24 hours, taking the official count to 336, with No10 warning that it is now spreading domestically.
Dr Barrett said: ‘I think we can now say that this variant is spreading faster in the UK than the Delta variant at the same time, and that’s something that I think was unclear until very recently. I am pretty confident that it’s going to take over (Delta) probably in a matter of weeks.’
Even if it is milder than Delta, there are fears the scale of infections with Omicron will trigger a wave of hospital admissions on par with the peak in January this year.
The virus appears to be able to infect former Covid patients with ease and UK Government experts expect it to make existing vaccines 40 per cent weaker at stopping an infection.
Experts have warned that if Omicron can infect far more people than then it could cause a larger surge in admissions, even if only a small percentage need to be hospitalised.
Asked whether Omicron could infect more people but make fewer people sick, Professor Spector told BBC Breakfast: ‘If early reports pan out – we don’t absolutely know this, we’ve got hardly any data in this country where we have high rates of vaccination – but if we assume that it is not more severe and possibly milder than Delta, but it’s much more transmissible…
‘So it means that perhaps twice as many people are going to pass it on from when someone gets it in a crowd. That’s going to be good news for the individual because we have less cases going to hospital, and partly this is due to our high vaccination rates.
‘But it’s also means that eventually you will get more deaths and problems, because nearly everyone is infected or re-infected.
‘And so, this this means that for the country as a whole, it could be worse news but better for the individual. So it’s absolutely no reason for complacency.’
There has been a meteoric rise in Covid infections in South Africa in the fortnight since it alerted the world to Omicron’s existence on November 24.
South Africa’s cases have skyrocketed since Omicron was first discovered. Last month, the country recorded 358 daily cases, compared to the 6,381 registered today. The daily figure is the lowest since Tuesday, but is due to low testing rates over the weekend, with just 24,159 people swabbed yesterday. The positivity rate — the proportion of all tests conducted that are confirmed Covid cases — rose to a record 26.4 per cent
Some 175 South Africans were hospitalised with the virus, up 121.5 per cent on the 79 people admitted to hospital last Monday. The number of patients in hospital with the virus is at 3,517, up 51.1 per cent in a week. Pictured: graph shows weekly Covid hospitalisations
Booster roll-out hits standstill despite ministers promising to put programme on ‘steroids’
The ‘turbocharged’ Covid booster campaign appears to be stalling despite the Government pinning its hopes of warding off Omicron on the programme.
Officials had promised to put the programme on ‘steroids’ and boost the number of third Covid jab doses delivered to 500,000-a-day as well as open up the scheme to the under-40s.
However the latest NHS data shows the UK is nowhere near that goal and is in fact delivering less boosters than a week ago on some days.
On Sunday, the day for which the latest data is available, only 290,165 Covid boosters were delivered across Britain, hardly an increase compared to 285,335 jabs given the week prior.
The closest the jab roll-out has got to the Government’s half-million-per-day goal was on Saturday, when 464,616 third dose Covid vaccines were administered.
But this was actually less than the amount of jabs delivered the Saturday prior, when 465,111 jabs were given.
According to The Telegraph officials have have blamed the lack of acceleration on ‘red-tape’ from the UK Health Security Agency.
Boris Johnson unveiled UK’s mammoth Covid booster programme 10 days ago, with aim of providing every eligible adult in the UK a third jab by the end of January.
As part of this, the prime minister said the previous wait time between second and third Covid jabs would be slashed in half from six months to three to make millions of under-40s eligible and boost the speed of the rollout.
But it was only on Friday NHS chiefs finally issued their guidance on the new jab roll-out, after negotiating with doctors unions on what services GPs would stop providing in order to assist with rollout.
This document also revealed that the under-40s won’t even be able to book a vaccine online until 13 December,
In total just over 20.5million Covid boosters have been administered across the UK at the end of the weekend, less than half of 53million the Government hopes to have offered the booster by the end of January.
Sources told The Telegraph that the NHS delayed the opening up of its booking systems because it was waiting for legal instructions to be provided by UKHSA.
There were 6,381 Covid cases in the last 24 hours, up 180 per cent in a week. This was down on yesterday’s figure of 11,000, but tens of thousands of fewer tests were carried out.
Professor Spector, who runs the Covid ZOE symptom study, said that in around 10 days’ time the UK could have more cases of Omicron than some countries it had put on the travel red list.
He added: ‘The official estimates are about 350-odd Omicron cases, and because the current testing is missing a lot of those, it’s probably at least 1,000 to 2,000 I would guess at the moment.
‘And we are expecting this to be doubling about every two days at the moment, so if you do your maths – say assumed it’s 1,000 at the moment, and you think it’s going to be doubling every two days, you can see that those numbers are going to be pretty (high) certainly in about 10 days time.’
But the Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab ruled out any further Christmas curbs this morning as he hailed the vaccination programme as Britain’s way out of the Omicron crisis.
He told the Today programme: ‘We’re doing everything that can be done to tackle the risk that we face, and we’re doing it in the proportionate way that doesn’t create other risks and other challenges.’
Pressed on why the Government is not implementing Plan B, he said: ‘We don’t think Plan B is required. Why? Because of the success of the vaccine programme. We’ve got 118 million doses dispensed.’
Dr Barrett, director of the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Institute, said that there were still many unknowns about Omicron that could determine whether more curbs are needed.
He told the Today programme: ‘The really critical question, of course, is how many of those cases of which there will likely be a large number will lead to severe disease?
‘And a number of people including Dr Fauci (chief medical adviser to US president), as you mentioned, have hypothesised that this variant may be more mild or less likely to cause severe disease than previous variants of the virus.
‘I think what we have seen so far in South Africa, for example, is possibly consistent with that, but it’s really much too soon to say, and the reason for that is that this variant seems to be able to infect individuals who either have been vaccinated or previously have been infected.
‘And we know that second infections or breakthrough infections of vaccinated individuals tend to be more mild. So the fact that so far we have seen not very many severe cases of Omicron, maybe because it is infecting these individuals with some amount of immunity and that’s good news that they aren’t having tonnes of severe disease, but I think it is too soon to assume that fundamentally Omicron is more mild than say Delta.’
Doctors in South Africa have insisted that most patients suffer only mild illness, with the US’ top Covid expert Dr Anthony Fauci claiming yesterday it ‘doesn’t look like there’s a great degree of severity to it’.
But British scientists, including the Government’s own, have warned against the narrative that it is a weaker strain, warning that it could put significant pressure on the NHS by virtue of the fact it can infect more people.
One mathematical modeller predicted there could be up to 3,000 hospital admissions per day in the UK in January if Omicron takes off domestically — compared to the 4,000 per day at the peak last year.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett reiterated that even if the strain is milder, if it is extremely infectious it could put significant pressure on the NHS.
‘The potential problem is that even if that’s a very small fraction, a small fraction of a really big number can still cause problems.
‘It kind of has a set of mutations in its genome, some of which we’ve seen before, and others of which we’ve only predicted, to make it bind very tightly to human cells to latch on and infect them.
‘So that probably helps it transmit and it also has mutations in many of the positions which are known to be the places where antibodies that we make from vaccines for example, latch on to the virus.
‘And so because those have been changed, it’s highly likely that this virus will be less well neutralised by vaccines.
‘Again, we’ll see that with sort of laboratory data in a few weeks, but the speed at which it is moving through both vaccinated countries and countries with a lot of previous infection like South Africa, are strongly implicating that it can indeed evade some amount of immunity.