Boosters urged as scientists warn UK faces 'substantial' Omicron wave in New Year

11 December 2021, 12:30 | Updated: 11 December 2021, 13:03

Scientists have warned further Covid measures may be needed in 2022
Scientists have warned further Covid measures may be needed in 2022. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

The UK is facing a substantial wave of Omicron infections in the New Year, according to a group of experts who advise the Government.

Experts from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine have suggested tougher Covid restrictions may be needed in 2022 to stop a significant rise in infections.

The variant has the potential to cause anywhere between 25,000 to 75,000 deaths in England over the next five months, the experts said.

They used experimental data to look at how Omicron may transmit as the country heads into 2022.

Read more: Omicron: Get booster straight away if you are eligible, health officials urge

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Even under the most optimistic scenario, they predicted a wave of infection which could lead to a peak of more than 2,000 daily hospital admissions, with 175,000 hospital admissions and 24,700 deaths between December 1 this year and April 30, 2022.

This is if no additional control measures are implemented over and above the current Plan B introduced by the Government in England.

The team said mask-wearing, working from home and booster jabs may not be enough, and predict a peak of daily hospital admissions of 2,400 in January.

The scientists suggested more control measures early in 2022 - such as restrictions on indoor hospitality, the closure of some entertainment venues and restrictions on how many people can gather in one place.

These measures would be sufficient to substantially control the wave, reducing hospital admissions by 53,000 and deaths by 7,600, they said.

The scientists assumed Omicron causes the same severity of illness as Delta but did not look at the impact of measures such as mass population testing to control its spread.

They said in their paper: "These results suggest that Omicron has the potential to cause substantial surges in cases, hospital admissions and deaths in populations with high levels of immunity, including England.

"The reintroduction of additional non-pharmaceutical interventions may be required to prevent hospital admissions exceeding the levels seen in England during the previous peak in winter 2020-2021."

Dr Rosanna Barnard, from LSHTM's Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, who co-led the research, said: "More data over the next few weeks will strengthen our knowledge on Omicron and the consequences of this on transmission in England.

"However, these early projections help guide our understanding about potential futures in a rapidly-evolving situation.

"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.

"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."

Dr Nick Davies from CMMID, who co-led the new study, said: "These are early estimates, but they do suggest that, overall, Omicron is outcompeting Delta rapidly by evading vaccines to a substantial degree."

He told a briefing "the booster programme will substantially mitigate the impact of Omicron in England".

Dr Davies added that it was difficult to predict the true level of protection offered by two doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer, and urged people to get boosters.

Earlier, Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease, said Omicron is spreading so fast that people are "very likely" to meet someone infected with the Covid-19 variant unless they are "living the life of a hermit".

The University of Edinburgh academic also warned "a lot of people" could still end up in hospital even if the coronavirus mutation proves to provoke milder symptoms than the Delta variant.

On Friday, analysis by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) found that the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines provided "much lower" levels of protection against symptomatic infection with Omicron compared to Delta.

But the UKHSA said a booster dose gives around 70% to 75% protection against symptomatic infection with Omicron, as they urged people to have their boosters.

The findings come as daily Covid-19 cases reached their highest level in almost a year and the UKHSA predicted that, if current trends continue, the UK will exceed one million infections by the end of the month.

No 10 has maintained there are "no plans" to go further with measures in England, amid reports that proposals are being drawn up for a Plan C, featuring even tougher rules.