It’s too early to say whether the omicron variant is more severe than other variants, but if cases rise rapidly it could be enough to overwhelm the NHS, a meeting heard.
Ian Brown, chief officer for public health at Bedford Borough Council told the Local Outbreak Engagement Board last night (Thursday, December 9) that the number of omicron cases is currently doubling every two to three days.
“I think everyone will be aware that this new variant has many more mutations than other variants we’ve seen in the past,” he said.
“And those mutations appear to be linked to the vaccine targets, and we believe, and there’s evidence now, that vaccine efficacy may be affected.
“We believe also that reinfection with omicron following previous variants is probably more likely,” he added.
Mr Brown said that there is “good evidence” to suggest that three doses of a vaccine will still offer a good level of protection, and are “likely” to protect particularly against serious illness and death.
He added that up to Wednesday there had been 568 omicron cases recorded in the UK and that the figure was increasing.
Mr Brown said: “There’s evidence to suggest that cases are doubling every two to three days at the moment, which is a very rapid rise.
“It’s too early at the moment to say, with any certainty, whether omicron is more or less severe than other variants.
“But even if it is less severe than delta, if it does rise rapidly and even if a very small proportion of people become seriously ill, it could be enough to overwhelm the NHS,” he added.
On Wednesday, in response to the omicron threat, the government announced it would move to its Plan B, which it set out in September.
“There are a number of elements to that,” Mr Brown said.
“First of all, there are a number of changes to the vaccination program, including opening up the booking service to all those over age 40 and shortening the dose interval between the second and boosted doses to three months.
“In terms of testing, the government has said it intends to introduce daily lateral flow tests for all contacts of positive Covid-19 cases rather than requiring a ten-day isolation period for omicron contacts as they currently do.
“And we are waiting to see the detail of how that will work and when it will come into force,” he said.
“Face coverings, which are currently mandatory in retail settings and on public transport, will become mandatory in most indoor public venues from the 10th, and that includes cinemas theatres and places of worship, but excludes hospitality settings like pubs and restaurants.
“Everyone from Monday will be encouraged to work from home if they can,” he added.
Another key element of Plan B is the Covid pass.
“Which would mean, if it gets parliamentary approval, from next Wednesday people who want to go into a nightclub or other settings where large crowds gather will need to demonstrate either that they’ve had two doses of the vaccine or that they’ve had a recent negative lateral flow test,” Mr Brown said.
The panel was told that the local contact tracing team has been working closely with the UK Health Security Agency to identify suspected and confirmed cases and to make sure that their contacts are being properly identified.
by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter