Coronavirus latest as Scotland isolation rules tightened from today as boosters urged in face of Omicron spread; care home residents allowed only three visitors under new COVID guidance; rumours of ‘Plan C’ grow amid Omicron variant fears.
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Professor Paul Hunter, from the Norwich School of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, told Sky News there is still great uncertainty about how severe Omicron will be.
He said a model from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), which is projecting between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths in England over the next five months if no additional measures are taken beyond Plan B, contains “significant uncertainties around a lot of the assumptions”.
Prof Hunter said the main uncertainty – the “big issue” – is over whether Omicron is as severe as the Delta variant.
With that in mind, he pointed out that the LSHTM study “actually assumes that Omicron and Delta have the same severity in previously unvaccinated, unexposed individuals”.
He added that early data from South Africa suggests people being admitted to hospital after contracting Omicron are suffering less severe symptoms compared to earlier variants.
“I’m hopeful that we will find that the Omicron variant is indeed less severe than Delta and less severe than we’re expecting, but that is at the moment still a hope and we will have to wait until we get better data from the UK on that,” Prof Hunter said.
The continuing uncertainly makes decisions about how to tackle Omicron “probably the most difficult we’ve had in the whole of this pandemic”, he said.
Sir Jeremy Farrar has retweeted something he posted on 19 October.
He said then: “Vaccine Plus. Please wear mask (on) public transport now, in shops/indoor spaces – good ventilation, if possible, flexible work times, COVID/flu vaccine, minor modifications now can prevent rises (in) cases, deaths, new variants or need for Plan B. It is avoidable.”
Today, he has said: “Best time for (above) was Oct 2021, second best time is today, but now needs additional measures.
“Failure to act in Oct 2020 led to dreadful impact and loss of lives in Jan/Feb 2021.
“We can now only hope failure to act in Oct 2021 does not lead to similar outcome in Jan/Feb 2022.
Official data shows another 54,073 COVID cases in the latest 24-hour period.
A further 132 deaths have been recorded – up from 120 on Friday.
But infections are down on yesterday, when 58,194 were reported.
Earlier, the UK Health Security Agency said 633 additional cases of the Omicron variant had been reported across the UK, taking the total to 1,898.
The number of people who have received a third vaccine dose, or booster, has risen to 22,594,743 – or 39.3% of the population aged 12 plus.
The number of boosters administered yesterday was 409,760.
Sky News correspondent Sadiya Chowdhury writes:
Twenty-four table settings lie empty at Giuliano’s Italian restaurant in Edinburgh – a most unusual sight for such a popular Saturday lunchtime venue.
Eleven reservations were cancelled in the first half hour of opening on Saturday. Angelo Lordi, who runs the place, says he expects more.
“Since yesterday we’ve had 40 people cancel and I’m sure we’ll have more. Through the week we had a lot of other cancellations as well and the 17th of December, which is the Friday before Christmas, is the busiest of the year and we’ve had three big parties cancel and another one I’m sure will cancel because I didn’t get a reply from them.”
Hand sanitiser bottles stand idly at the entrance – no customers to pump them. “We are really trying to follow the COVID guidelines just to keep everybody happy,” Angelo says.
He employs 25 staff and says he’s worried about what will happen if any of them get COVID. New rules in Scotland from today say anyone in contact with a positive case will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of vaccination status or negative PRC test results.
“If one gets it, he has to be isolating for ten days, then the next one… it’s another worry,” Angelo says.
It is frustrating for him because his staff are all double vaccinated and half of them have had their boosters. They had hoped this Christmas was going to look different to last year’s.
“It’s been a tough two years,” Angelo says. “We were hoping this Christmas would be different. It’s like you’re reaching for a grape and at the last minute it gets snatched away from you,” he explains as a waiter nearby juggles with a bottle of wine.
Modelling data for Scotland suggests that in a worst-case scenario it could see 25,000 COVID cases a day. Angelo doesn’t know what Christmas will look like but after the last minute changes to the holiday season in 2020, he is preparing for the worst.
The study says Omicron could cause between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths in England over the next five months if no additional measures are taken beyond Plan B.
A government spokesperson said: “We continue to look closely at all of the emerging data.
“We’ve been clear throughout that vital vaccines and boosters are our best line of defence against this virus and that is why we are urging people to come forward as quickly as possible as they become eligible.
“Plan B remains a proportionate response based upon what we know, so we encourage everyone to follow the rules by wearing a face covering, working from home if you can, testing regularly and coming forward for your booster when called.”
A model is only as good as the assumptions you make.
That’s why scientists on the SAGE committee that advises the government have commissioned half a dozen academic groups to make predictions during this pandemic.
This team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is one of the expert groups, and highly respected. But it is only one model.
Even they conclude there is a huge spectrum of possible outcomes for the coming fourth wave of COVID.
There just isn’t enough known yet about Omicron’s ability to evade vaccines and cause serious disease.
In their most optimistic scenario, the number of people being admitted to hospital would be 40% lower than at the peak of the January 2021 wave.
But in their most pessimistic scenario it would be twice as high.
It’s a huge difference – because there’s so little hard data.
Some of the key numbers are beginning to come in – too late for this model, though.
Preliminary real-world evidence from the UK Health Security Agency on Friday showed that Omicron dramatically blunts the effectiveness of two doses of the vaccine, particularly AstraZeneca.
But the addition of a booster is likely to prevent symptomatic infection.
That helps us to start narrowing down which of the scenarios in this model is most likely.
The closest fit is one in which the variant has high “immune escape” because of its mutations, but the booster is also effective.
In that scenario, there are likely to be around 318,000 hospital admissions and 47,100 deaths by the end of next April.
That’s still a huge number, but not as bad as it could have been.
The numbers could decline as more data comes in and the model is refined.
A key assumption by the researchers is that Omicron causes symptoms that are as severe as Delta.
That’s far from certain.
Doctors in South Africa report that patients are developing much milder disease. Even those in hospital are far less likely to need oxygen this time around.
And there are yet to be any reports of deaths in Europe’s highly vaccinated population, despite the rapidly growing number of cases.
It may just be a matter of time, though. Omicron is spreading fastest in younger people who are least likely to develop serious COVID anyway.
So until the variant has reached more vulnerable groups we can’t be sure just how virulent it is. That could be another few weeks.
Unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of time.
Case numbers are doubling every two-and-a-half days. It’s so quick that in the eight days between the prime minister announcing Plan B and the last of the restrictions taking effect, the outbreak will have increased in size eight times.
Pause for a moment and dwell on what that means: the likely 2,000 cases a day last Wednesday would have swelled to 16,000 a day in just over a week.
With such a rapid rise the government and its scientific advisers are having to act early on very little evidence.
The Plan B restrictions are a light touch. They will slow the surge of Omicron, but they are highly unlikely to stop it.
There are too many opportunities left for Omicron to spread, such as in pubs and restaurants where no testing or COVID pass is required, and at Christmas parties that are still allowed even though workers are encouraged to work from home.
So expect a Plan C soon to try to slow the virus further.
That would give more time for the booster to be rolled out and hopefully flatten what would otherwise be a very high and very sharp peak in cases and hospital admissions.
New data from the UKHSA shows that the UK has recorded a further 633 cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours.
That brings the total number of confirmed Omicron cases in the country to 1,898.
It is also a rise from the 448 Omicron cases reported yesterday.
A special capsule has been developed by Osaka University Hospital in western Japan to transport COVID-19 patients aboard “doctor-car” ambulances while completely isolating them.
Japan has so far recorded 1,728,548 COVID cases and 18,372 deaths.
French authorities are aiming to accelerate COVID-19 vaccinations before Christmas as infections surge and more people seek medical attention.
“People can celebrate Christmas normally, but we must respect the rules…and get vaccinated,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex told public radio outlet France Blue last night.
The country has registered a daily average of more than 44,000 new cases over the last week, a 36% increase from the previous week, according to the latest government figures.
Weekly hospitalisations of people with COVID-19 also went up 1,120, a 41% rise.
And on Monday, the government closed nightclubs until 6 January and tightened social distancing measures in closed spaces and outdoors.
Mr Castex said the government is not considering another lockdown that would limit or prohibit public events and social gatherings.