Working from home will not stop spread of Omicron, top scientist says

First laboratory test results suggest the variant can evade vaccines

A leading expert says that the spread of Omicron cannot be stopped by a working from home order. PA

Omicron cannot be stopped from spreading by a working from home order, a leading scientist has said.

Prof Neil Ferguson, whose modelling helped instigate the first lockdown last year, was responding to reports suggesting ministers had drawn up plans to introduce vaccine passports and send workers home in an attempt to restrict the spread of the new variant.

He said working from home “wouldn’t stop it but it might slow it down so it’s doubling, rather than every two or three days, every five or six days”.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot but it is potentially a lot in terms of allowing us to catch this virus better and boost population immunity,” he said.

Prof Ferguson, who advises the government on Covid, said given the lack of knowledge about Omicron, it is impossible to rule out further restrictions, including another lockdown in the new year.

He said while official figures show Omicron is "accelerating very fast" in the UK, "it’s the same if not faster than we saw with the original strain of the virus in March of last year".

"So it is a concern," he added. “It’s likely to overtake Delta before Christmas at this rate, precisely when is hard to say.

“We’ll start seeing an impact on overall case numbers – it’s still probably only 2 percent, 3 percent of all cases so it’s kind of swamped, but within a week or two, we’ll start seeing overall case numbers accelerate quite markedly as well.”

On Tuesday the UK declared 101 new Omicron infections, taking the total to 437.

Government officials working on Covid policy have carried out modelling on the economic impact of a working from home order over the Christmas and new year period, according to The Telegraph.

Prof Ferguson’s comments came as ministers in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet were said to be split on the idea of introducing a vaccine passport scheme at a meeting on Tuesday.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to provide answers over reports of a Downing Street Christmas party. Reuters

Amid rising cases of Omicron in the UK, members were forced to confront the idea of moving to the government’s Plan B. This would mean everyone who can work from home being ordered to do so.

The results of the first laboratory experiments released on Monday evening from South Africa suggest Omicron has the potential to evade immunity significantly better than any other variant discovered so far.

Tests were carried out on blood samples taken from people who had received two doses of a vaccine and it was found that their antibodies were one-fortieth as potent in their ability to prevent Omicron from infecting cells. A more robust response was found in double vaccinated people who had been infected with Omicron. The researchers concluded that this implied that a booster shot could improve a person’s immune defences, at least against severe disease.

Senior Conservative MPs said that the prime minister would face a backlash if he tightened restrictions while there is not a single person in hospital with Omicron.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former party leader, said the Conservative government had to “hold our nerve” and back away from Plan B, instead trusting in the vaccination programme.

Former Cabinet minister David Davis said: “As far as I can see, Omicron appears to be a very infectious but less virulent variant.”

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Omicron and Covid-19 around the world - in pictures

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The debate comes as the government finds itself at the centre of a storm of criticism over a suspected Christmas party for staff in Downing Street last year when social mixing was banned.

A leaked video obtained by ITV News showed the prime ninister’s press secretary at the time, Allegra Stratton, joking about a “fictional” party in December 2020. Adviser Ed Oldfield jokingly asked her about a party and she laughed off the question, saying it “was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced”.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer hit out at the government over the reports and leaked video, saying: “They’re treating the public with contempt. The prime minister needs to step up, accept what happened and apologise.”

Sir Roger Gale, a Conservative MP, said Mr Johnson “has a certain amount of explaining to do” over the party.

He said he will accept there was no gathering only if the Prime Minister will “say point blank that there was no party”.

“To deliberately mislead the House [of Commons], if that turned out to be the case, would be a resignation matter,” Sir Roger told Sky News.

He said the only options at Mr Johnson’s disposal are for him to either admit there was a lockdown-breaking party and he didn’t know about it, or to say “on the record, at the despatch box, there was no party”.

Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s leader in Westminster, said the prime minister “has to resign” over the scandal.

As the backlash continued on Wednesday morning, Health Secretary Sajid Javid failed to show up to scheduled TV and radio interviews to answer questions about the government’s conduct.

Mr Johnson is expected to make a statement about the party at the weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions at noon on Wednesday.

Updated: December 8th 2021, 10:18 AM