Covid: Early signs Omicron spreads more easily, says No 10
Early signs suggest the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the current Delta strain, No 10 has said.
But the prime minister’s official spokesman added it was still too early to draw conclusions – and any impact caused by Omicron would also depend on whether it caused severe illness.
There are currently 336 confirmed cases of Omicron in the UK, figures show.
Earlier, Wales’ health minister said they are expecting a significant wave of Omicron that will peak in January.
Scientists believe Omicron could spread more easily than Delta, and could out-compete Delta to become the dominant variant in the UK.
But much is still unknown, and it could still take weeks to understand how severe illness from the variant is and what it means for the effectiveness of vaccines.
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“The modelling suggests that that will reach its peak by around the end of January,
which is why there is an urgency in terms of getting people vaccinated and
boosters done as soon as possible.”
The variant is currently spreading in the community in multiple areas of England, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Monday.
The government’s Cabinet was given an update on the pandemic on Tuesday morning.
Giving an account of the meeting afterwards, the PM’s spokesman said: “The prime minister said it was too early to draw conclusions on the characteristics of Omicron but early indications were that it is more transmissible than Delta.”
But he said there was “no hard agreement on the level of transmissibility”, and it was “too early to tell” the effect on vaccine evasion or seriousness of the illness it would cause.
The spokesman also said ministers did not discuss whether to introduce the government’s “plan B” for winter – which could involve more restrictions if the pressure on the NHS becomes too much.
Earlier, Welsh health minister Eluned Morgan also said it was clear the Omicron variant spreads rapidly.
Although there have been only four cases in Wales – compared to the 261 in England and 71 in Scotland (and none in Northern Ireland) – Ms Morgan said people should act with caution.
“We are expecting a significant wave of Omicron to hit Wales,” she said.
“The modelling suggests that that will reach its peak by around the end of January, which is why there is an urgency in terms of getting people vaccinated and boosters done as soon as possible.”
Scientists can say with increasing confidence Omicron appears to be more transmissible than Delta.
That’s because of how quickly it has spread in South Africa and from early data in the UK.
But where that will lead is another matter – and one for which there is huge uncertainty.
To what extent it spreads faster because it can get past immunity, is more infectious or has a shorter incubation period is not yet clear.
The balance between these will have a big bearing on to what extent it will drive up overall infections.
Then you have to factor in the ability of boosters to dampen the growth.
What’s more, you would expect reinfections or infections post vaccination to be milder, unless this variant causes more serious illness, which there is no sign of yet.
If infections are milder, the proportion ending up in hospital will drop.
But even if it halves, if infection rates double, you still have the same pressure on the NHS.
The worry is that, one way or other, more people will end up in hospital. If numbers go up significantly, questions start to be asked about how much the NHS can cope with.
Omicron is the most heavily mutated version of coronavirus found so far.
It was first identified in South Africa, where there is now a surge in the number of people catching Covid multiple times.
This suggests the variant might be better at sidestepping some of the protection offered by vaccines, or past infection.
However, there is not definitive proof. Even if Omicron is more infectious, there is no evidence yet that it causes more serious illness.
The government is urging people to take up their booster jab when offered – or be vaccinated if they have not yet done so.
Speaking during a visit to a prison on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said the UK had now delivered more than 20 million boosters. “I would certainly say to people, now is the time to get it,” he added.