Special envoy on Covid-19 to the WHO Dr David Nabarro said the spread of the Omicron variant was ‘unprecedented’ and presents ‘ serious’ issue for not only the UK but ‘Europe and the world’.
He called on ‘every single human being’ to do ‘everything they can’ to minimise social contacts, wear face masks and practice good hygiene to prevent transmission of the super-mutant strain.
It comes after Britain today announced its highest ever daily Covid cases since the pandemic began with 78,610 people testing positive in the past 24 hours.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Professor Chris Whitty this evening delivered a stark warning over the need to think twice before attending Christmas parties, warning Omicron already makes up a third of cases and that Government modelling predicts up to 400,000 people are getting the mutant virus every day.
Speaking to Sky News, Dr Nabarro echoed Professor Whitty’s warning about Christmas parties and urged ‘every single human being’ to ‘minimise [social] contact to what is absolutely essential… only do what is vital’.
Dr Nabarro said the Omicron variant is spreading ‘superfast’ and that the strain has ‘a doubling time of numbers of cases every two to three days’.
‘That means that [Omicron] will be eight times more serious in one week. Forty times more serious in two weeks. Three hundred or four hundred times more serious in three weeks. Over a thousand times more serious in four weeks.’
He warned the escalating caseload, including many people who have had both vaccinations, will add stress to already overworked health systems worldwide.
‘If we are lucky then we won’t have high death rates but we will still get a very heavy load on health services and therefore on hospitals,’ he said.
Dr Nabarro said he could not predict the potential case or death toll from the latest variant and added it would not be ‘helpful’ to speculate.
He described any prediction as ‘just me expressing my hopes to you’ and warned ‘nobody has’ the information to predict how many people will get Omicron in the coming weeks.
The above graph shows the proportion of cases suspected to be Omicron because they do not have an S-gene (purple). PCR tests look for three genes to confirm a Covid infection but with Omicron one is so mutated that they only pick up two of them
Earlier Professor Whitty told a Downing Street press conference that more cases records were going to be broken by the ultra-infectious Omicron variant and warned that it was a ‘nailed on prospect’ that thousands would be hospitalised over the coming weeks.
He urged people to ‘prioritise’ who they meet in the run up to Christmas, or risk catching the virus and spending the festive period alone.
Professor Whitty could not be pinned down on whether harsher lockdown curbs were necessary, pointing out that there were still several key unknowns about Omicron — such as how vaccines will perform and how severe it is.
He also called for extra caution over reports from South Africa that the strain may be milder.
But he added: ‘I think that what most people are doing is, and I would think this seems very sensible, is prioritising the social interactions that really matter to them and, to protect those ones, de-prioritising ones that matter much less to them.’
The Prime Minister agreed with his chief medical officer, saying people should ‘think carefully’ before going to events over the Christmas period in a dramatic shift in tone.
Grilled about whether Plan B was enough, he added: ‘We think that, given the balance of risks and the balance of continuing uncertainties about Omicron, this is the right approach to take, the right mixture of approaches, to do these two things at once.’
Mr Johnson also hailed the ‘absolutely vital’ booster drive, which saw a record 611,000 top-up jabs dished out in the UK yesterday despite scenes of chaos with hours-long queues and people being turned away at clinics.
But experts, such as Dr Nabarro, who are advising the Government have been much more alarmist.
Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, earlier warned Omicron posed the ‘biggest threat’ of the pandemic so far and could put the NHS in ‘serious peril’.
Despite modelling by her agency being widely disputed among scientists, she told MPs: ‘I am sure for example that the numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we have seen in cases for previous variants.
‘The difficulty is that the growth of this virus has a doubling time, doubling days, at the moment which is shortening, i.e. it is doubling faster, growing faster and in most regions in the UK it is now under two days.’
Meanwhile Top SAGE modeller Professor Graham Medley admitted he feared the super-strain could trigger a ‘very large’ wave of hospitalisations because it is so transmissible, while vaccine adviser Professor Adam Finn called for action to halt the ‘alarming’ spread of the virus.
NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard doubled down on claims that Omicron could cause even more hospitalisations than previous waves.
This graph shows the Covid infection rate per 100,000 people in England’s regions. It also shows there has been a rapid uptick in London (red) while cases remain largely flat in other regions
The above graph shows the seven-day average for hospital admissions in different regions of England. It reveals that in London (orange) there has been a steady increase