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Additional measures may be needed, McBride warns as concern Omicron wave may increase hospital pressures

It could be ‘several times worse’ than last winter, as NI health chiefs warn further restrictions can’t be ruled out

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Programme: Rollout of Covid-19 vaccine and booster jabs takes place at the ground of Crusaders Football Club in Belfast yesterday

Programme: Rollout of Covid-19 vaccine and booster jabs takes place at the ground of Crusaders Football Club in Belfast yesterday

People queue around the block outside Crusaders Football Club in Belfast

People queue around the block outside Crusaders Football Club in Belfast

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Programme: Rollout of Covid-19 vaccine and booster jabs takes place at the ground of Crusaders Football Club in Belfast yesterday

Northern Ireland’s predicted Omicron peak could see hospital pressures “several times worse” than those experienced last winter, Stormont’s Chief Scientific Adviser has said.

Professor Ian Young said he expects Omicron to become the dominant variant before the end of the year and it is likely case numbers will peak by the middle of next month.

It comes as Chief Medical Officer Sir Michael McBride warned “potentially significant additional measures” may be required to reduce the impact of the impending Omicron wave.

Speaking at a briefing with the media yesterday, Sir Michael said: “I think there is cause for very significant concern.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

“At this time, we still don’t have some key elements of information, such as the number of people who get Omicron who end up in hospital, but I have to say I am more concerned at this stage than I have been at any stage in the pandemic.”

Yesterday, the Public Health Agency revealed the number of confirmed Omicron cases in Northern Ireland had reached 151. The rise — up from 12 on Tuesday — is down to an increase in community transmission and a change in the definition across the UK, which means that cases previously recorded as highly probable are automatically recorded as confirmed. Prof Young said data is expected next week which will provide a clearer picture on the possible number of people who will be hospitalised with Omicron, which is now believed to have a doubling time of two days.

Until then, he said it is impossible to predict the severity of the Omicron wave or rule out further restrictions.

However, if it turns out Omicron results in illness as severe as that caused by Delta, it could see the Executive taking emergency action to put in place further restrictions just days before Christmas.

Sir Michael said the public must now play its part in reducing the impact of the Omicron wave by getting vaccinated or getting their booster dose, wearing face coverings, limiting social contacts, and meeting up outdoors where possible.

He said: “Those are the things we really must focus on, as to whether or not those measures will be sufficient, I think it is reasonable given the current growth to be concerned that additional measures, potentially significantly additional measures, may be required.”

Prof Young continued: “CMO and myself are acutely aware not only of the impact of restrictions on the transmission of the virus, but also the harmful effect of restrictions on society more broadly. As always, ministers will need to take account of both of those factors in terms of any decisions that might be required. The situation is moving really rapidly, I think people are likely to be surprised by the speed at which Omicron cases will increase.

“It’s easy to talk about a doubling time of two days but when you begin to see that in action and the effect of it, then the picture will be to many people a surprising one as it builds up and that’s our concern.

“If those cases don’t lead to much in the way of hospital admissions, then the case for restrictions becomes much less.

“But if it appears that, for example, Omicron has similar severity to Delta in terms of risk of hospital admission, if that’s the case, then the consequences of a very large wave of cases occurring very rapidly should be apparent to everybody in terms of the likely hospital pressures that would result.”

Sir Michael explained: “Even if that’s a smaller percentage of cases of Omicron that end up requiring hospital care, even a reduced percentage of a very, very large number is still a large number. The risk is that puts very challenging set of circumstances for our health service and that is what we all want to avoid, there have never been any easy choices or decisions in this.”

Prof Young continued: “What we’re seeing is a number of other countries who are at early stages of significant Omicron waves have found it necessary to produce additional measures and restrictions to try to reduce the size of the wave and hospital pressures. If it turns out there is little in the way of hospital admission, then we might be able to manage just with the accelerated booster programme, but if Omicron leads to significant hospital admissions, even if it is a good deal less than Delta, then that number of cases will mean that it will be a real challenge to cope without ministers considering additional measures.”

He continued: “It is the number of people who will require admission to hospital which will be the critical factor and that could be, for example under very favourable modelling, it could be around the same or less than hospital pressures last winter.

“But certainly, if Omicron were to be similar to Delta, then it would be significantly worse than that possibly even several times worse without further measures.”

The warnings from the medical experts came as 11 out 12 acute hospitals in Northern Ireland were operating over capacity, while 2,156 cases and four deaths linked to the virus were recorded.


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