The UK can expect several more weeks where Covid cases hit a record high, England’s chief medical officer has warned, as Omicron continues its exponential rise across the country.
Professor Chris Whitty told a Downing Street briefing there were “two epidemics on top of one another” as the UK recorded 78,610 new cases of coronavirus, including cases of the new variant.
He said: “I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up.
“What we’ve got is two epidemics on top of one another – an existing Delta epidemic, roughly flat, and a very rapidly growing Omicron epidemic on top of it.”
Prof Whitty said the Government had to choose between “really unpalatable options”, adding that there was no clear data yet on severe disease and deaths from Omicron with two jabs, and what the picture was for those who have had boosters.
He said: “I think what most people are doing – and I think this seems very sensible – is prioritising the social interactions that mean a lot to them and, to prioritise those ones, de-prioritising ones that mean much less to them.”
He said he “strongly encouraged” that people take lateral flow tests before meeting up and ensuring there was good ventilation.
In the same briefing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to have their booster vaccines as he said a “great national fightback has begun” against Omicron.
He said he still believed this Christmas will be better than last, but urged people to be cautious.
He said people should “think carefully before you go, what kind of event is it? Are you likely to meet people who are vulnerable?… Get a test, make sure there is ventilation, wear a mask on transport.”
The Prime Minister insisted the Government’s Plan B was the right thing to do, adding that boosters also “provide an excellent level of protection”.
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.. to do these things at once.
“The progress we are making with the booster is vital… we really are boosting huge numbers of people now.”
He said over 90% of people aged 75 to 79-year-olds had been given a booster, adding it was those groups that “provide the bulk of those who are sadly going to die from Covid”.
Getting “everybody boosted at record speed in the way that we are” plus Plan B measures would keep the country on track and enable it to “move forward”, he added.
Earlier he said: “While hospital admissions are going up nationwide, we’re starting to see admissions coming down among some of the more vulnerable older age groups where we’ve already got those boosters in arms.”
He added: “People have responded with an amazing spirit of duty and obligation to others and I want to say that each and every one of you who rolls up your sleeve to get jabbed is helping this national effort.”
Prof Whitty said Omicron was “moving at an absolutely phenomenal pace” and it will only be a short time until we get to “very large numbers”, adding he thought the variant was a “very serious threat”.
The expert said “all the things that we do know (about Omicron) are bad”.
He said the existence of effective vaccines and boosters were the things “going for us” but said to his NHS colleagues that there will be “substantial numbers” going into hospital and that will become apparent “fairly soon after Christmas”.
But warning of potential issues with the NHS workforce, he said the expected sharp peak of Omicron cases is likely to lead to lots of people, including healthcare workers, being ill at the same time.
“We may end up with quite substantial gaps in rotas at short notice,” he said.
“Given how much difficulty my health and social care colleagues have had over the last two years, saying that is pretty depressing, because they have really, really had to stand up and go back again and again.
“The reality is this speed of onset is going to lead to lots of people getting ill simultaneously and we have to be realistic about that.”
Earlier, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief executive Dr Jenny Harries warned the strain is “probably the most significant threat” since the start of the pandemic as she said cases would be “staggering” compared to what has gone before.
She told MPs on the Transport Committee that the “real potential risk” is whether “cases turn into severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths”, but added that it is “too early” to be clear on that.
The latest recorded number of cases is the highest figure announced since mass testing began in summer last year, and surpasses the previous record of January 8 when 68,053 new cases were reported.
On Wednesday morning, a scientist advising the Government as part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned the NHS could be overwhelmed next month.
Professor Graham Medley, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said though uncertainties over Omicron remain, the nation “could see numbers of people being admitted to hospital getting very large” if infections continue to rise and spill into older age groups”.