Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
The UK is racing to deliver about 900,000 Covid-19 testing kits a day by the end of this week amid increasing demand for swabs and rising infections.
Addressing a widening gap between demand and supply, the UK Health Security Agency and the Royal Mail announced on Thursday that “capacity for home deliveries for Covid-19 testing kits will double to 900,000 a day in response to a week of unprecedented demand”.
This will include fast at-home lateral flow devices and PCR Covid-19 tests that are sent away to laboratories. Between 6am and 8am on Wednesday, more than 200,000 packs of lateral flow tests were ordered on the government’s website, prompting stock to run out for the third day in a row.
Some people hoping to book walk-in PCR tests near their home were reportedly directed to testing centres several kilometres away. Slots in areas, including London, Bristol, Surrey and Hertfordshire, were fully booked on the government’s website.
From Tuesday, people who came into close contact with a Covid-19 case – whether Omicron or not – were advised to take daily lateral flow tests for seven days in a bid to slow the spread of the new variant. Only those who test positive or develop symptoms will need to self-isolate.
As a result, demand for lateral flow tests had increased 83 per cent week on week.
The R number for Omicron is between 3 and 5 in the UK, Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser of the UK Health Security Agency, said on Thursday. This means that each person infected with the new variant passes it on to between three and five people.
The current R value of the Delta variant in the UK is estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.2.
The UK’s daily Covid-19 cases hit a record high on Wednesday, with 78,610 fresh infections reported.
People in Britain should expect several more weeks of record highs, England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty said.
He told a press conference at No 10 Downing Street that there were “two epidemics on top of one another”, with rising coronavirus cases and infections caused by the Omicron variant first detected in the UK last month.
Health minister Gillian Keegan confirmed on Wednesday the UK’s Omicron death total had not risen after the first death was declared this week. She said 10, possibly eleven, people with Omicron were in hospital, none of whom were on ventilators.
There were 774 Covid-19 patients in hospitals in the UK, she said.
Prof Whitty said people should prioritise what really matters to them this Christmas and avoid mixing with people unless necessary, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people not to cancel gatherings.
Questioned about the conflicting advice, Ms Keegan said it was down to people to “make a sensible choice” on who to mix with over the festive season.
“Everybody’s got different pros and cons. So make a sensible decision but definitely wear a mask and definitely make sure that you take a test beforehand,” she told Sky News.
Asked if the government could rule out imposing more social curbs between now and Christmas Day, she assured the public “we’re not intending to” further restrict people’s freedom.
But she reiterated the prime minister’s comments that he will act if needed and will recall Parliament from Christmas break to pass more measures if necessary.
She said the government’s booster vaccination campaign, which aims to offer each adult in England a third dose by the end of the year, was a means to help the population fight the new Omicron variant.
Amid growing fears of school closures, Ms Keegan said vaccinating 12-15 year olds should be enough to keep the education system running as normal.
Pupils and staff are due begin a two-week Christmas break on Friday, returning to classrooms on January 3 or 4.
She said "the best approach" was for schoolteachers to get vaccinated, "to make sure that we can keep everything going". It was “fully the intention” to keep schools open, she said.