UK ‘at risk of 75,000 Omicron deaths unless tougher restrictions imposed’

Experts advising government predict new coronavirus variant could cause 2,400 hospital admissions a day

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has received his booster shot. The panel of scientists advising his government on Covid-19 predicts the number of infections will soar. AP

Scientists have sounded a warning the Omicron variant of the coronavirus could cause 75,000 more deaths in England unless tougher restrictions are brought in.

The team, which advises the UK government, said masks, working from home and booster shots may not be enough to curb the spread and predicted daily Covid-related hospital admissions could reach 2,400 next month.

Experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, part of the University of London, used experimental data to look at how Omicron may be transmitted over the next few weeks.

The team’s members, who sit on the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, estimated the new wave could cause anywhere between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths in England over the next five months unless more stringent measures are introduced.

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Mask-wearing, social distancing and booster jabs are vital, but may not be enough
Dr Rosanna Barnard

The team said that under the most optimistic scenario, the wave of infection projected could cause a peak of more than 2,000 hospital admissions a day, with 175,000 admissions and 24,700 deaths between December 1 this year and April 30, 2022.

This is if no additional control measures are imposed over and above the current Plan B introduced by the government in England.

It said bringing in control measures early in 2022 – such as restrictions on indoor hospitality, the closure of some entertainment venues and restrictions on gatherings – would be sufficient to substantially control the wave, reducing hospital admissions by 53,000 and deaths by 7,600.

The modellers’ most pessimistic scenario projects that if no more control measures are used, a wave of infection would probably cause a peak in hospital admissions of about twice that of January 2021.

This could cause 492,000 hospital admissions and 74,800 deaths, according to the study, which was not peer-reviewed.

In such a scenario, the team estimates, stronger measures might be required to keep the number of hospital admissions below the January 2021 peak.

The scientists have based their predictions on the assumption Omicron causes the same severity of illness as Delta. They did not look at the impact of measures such as mass population testing on its spread.

“These results suggest that Omicron has the potential to cause substantial surges in cases, hospital admissions and deaths in populations with high levels of immunity, including England,” it said.

“The reintroduction of additional nonpharmaceutical interventions [measures other than shots and drugs] may be required to prevent hospital admissions exceeding the levels seen in England during the previous peak in winter 2020–2021.”

Dr Rosanna Barnard, from the university’s Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, who co-led the research, said the UK may have to endure “more stringent restrictions” to slow the spread.

“More data over the next few weeks will strengthen our knowledge on Omicron and the consequences of this on transmission in England,” she said.

“However, these early projections help guide our understanding about potential futures in a rapidly evolving situation.

“In our most optimistic scenario, the impact of Omicron in the early part of 2022 would be reduced with mild control measures, such as working from home.

“However, our most pessimistic scenario suggests that we may have to endure more stringent restrictions to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed.

“Mask-wearing, social distancing and booster jabs are vital, but may not be enough.

“Nobody wants to endure another lockdown but last-resort measures may be required to protect health services if Omicron has a significant level of immune escape or otherwise increased transmissibility compared to Delta.

“It is crucial for decision-makers to consider the wider societal impact of these measures, not just the epidemiology.”

Dr Nick Davies, who co-led the new study, said it was hard to predict the true level of protection offered by two doses of either AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. He urged people to have boosters.

“These are early estimates, but they do suggest that, overall, Omicron is outcompeting Delta rapidly by evading vaccines to a substantial degree,” he said.

He told a briefing “the booster programme will substantially mitigate the impact of Omicron in England”.

Many experts said Omicron is more transmissible and that they expect it to quickly overtake Delta as the dominant variant.

Eleanor Riley, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of Edinburgh, said “a lot of people” could still end up in hospital even if the mutation causes milder symptoms than those of the Delta variant.

“Omicron is spreading so quickly that, I think, unless you are living the life of a hermit, you are very likely to come across it in the next few weeks,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I don’t think anyone should be going around thinking they are not going to catch it. I think that situation has changed.”

On Friday, analysis by the UK Health Security Agency found the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines provided “much lower” levels of protection against symptomatic infection with Omicron than they do against Delta.

It said a booster dose gives about 70 per cent to 75 per cent protection against symptomatic infection with Omicron and urged people eligible for the shots to have them.

Daily Covid-19 cases in the UK have reached their highest in almost a year. The health security agency predicted that, if current trends continue, the UK would exceed one million infections by the end of the month.

The British government has maintained there are “no plans” to bring in tougher rules, despite reports to the contrary.

As of Wednesday, care home residents in England will be permitted to see no more than three visitors.

The devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own coronavirus measures.

Updated: December 11, 2021, 5:34 PM