Omicron case numbers in the UK could exceed the number of infections in red listed countries by next week, a leading expert says.
Prof Tim Spector, the founder of the Zoe Covid study app, predicted it would take just 10 days for Britain’s Omicron total to pass the figures recorded in the 11 African nations that have had travel restrictions imposed on them.
The professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London believes there are already more than 1,000 undetected Omicron infections in the UK – and predicted that the number would continue to surge over the coming days, based on the current trajectory of cases doubling every 48 hours.
“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,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“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.
“By that time, we’ll probably have more cases than they will in some of those African countries.
“So I think these travel restrictions do perhaps have their place initially, when cases are really low here and really high in the other country, but when we reach that equilibrium, there’s very little point in having them, in my opinion.”
His comments came as ministers introduced new rules to curb the spread of Omicron.
From Tuesday, travellers arriving in England will have to take a pre-departure antigen or PCR test and a post-arrival PCR two days after entering the country. They will be required to self-isolate until a negative result has been returned to them.
The rules drew a backlash from the travel industry, with many complaining that the move to tougher restrictions is not justified by the data.
Prof Spector said that data from the Zoe symptom study app suggests that about half of all cases at the moment of Delta are being missed because they are not presenting with classic Covid symptoms – fever, new and persistent cough and a loss or change of smell or taste.
“Omicron is probably more, much more similar to the mild variants we’re seeing in people who have been vaccinated,” he said.
“And so it is going to be producing cold-like symptoms that people won’t recognise as Covid if they just believe the official government advice.”
The UK has imposed travel restrictions on 11 countries, requiring travellers to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days after arriving. These are South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Omicron is being transmitted in communities, rather than just being linked to international travel.
“The Omicron variant is continuing to spread here and around the world,” Mr Javid said on Monday.
“According to the latest data there are now 261 confirmed cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336.
“This includes cases with no links to international travel. So, we can conclude that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England,” Mr Javid said.
He said the government cannot “say for certain” whether Omicron will evade protection offered by Covid vaccines, or how severe a disease it will cause.
“We are learning more about this new variant all the time,” he told MPs.
“Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant than for the Delta variant, but we don’t yet have a complete picture of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or indeed how it interacts with the vaccines.
“We can’t say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.”
The Conservative government’s strategy for tackling the latest variant is to “buy ourselves time and to strengthen our defences” Mr Javid said, to give scientists enough days to study Omicron.