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Omicron: Everything you need to know about the new coronavirus variant

The cabinet is meeting to discuss possible Christmas lockdown restrictions, in response to rapidly rising Omicron case numbers. Here's what we know about the new variant

omicron

Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds Covid-19 press conference alongside Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer and Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser at 9 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

A week after Boris Johnson declared an “Omicron emergency”, amid growing fears over the new Covid variant, ministers are meeting to consider stronger measures to tackle its spread.

The new variant of the novel coronavirus poses a “very high” risk to global health, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). But relatively little is known about the virus first identified in South Africa, dubbed Omicron, or the effect it could have on our way of life.

This is everything we know so far.

How dangerous is the Omicron variant?

As Omicron continues to spread throughout the UK, limited early information is giving way to slightly more clarity.

Case numbers have exploded. Over 82,000 new cases were recorded on Sunday 19 December, a 72 per cent increase on the previous Sunday. Experts predict there may be one million daily cases by the end of the month.

On Monday 13 December Boris Johnson confirmed the country’s first death from Omicron. It emerged that this person had been unvaccinated.

As of Monday 20 December, there has been no increase in the number of Covid-related deaths. However, this is an indicator which lags behind increases in case numbers and hospitalisations.

The situation has prompted an increase in the UK’s Covid alert level from three to four, the highest level since May.

In an address on Sunday 12 December, Johnson said: “At this point our scientists cannot say that Omicron is less severe.”

He added that the variant’s increased transmissibility meant that, regardless of severity, its spread risked an overwhelming burden on the NHS.

Scientists in South Africa have reported Omicron may evade some of our immunity after detecting a surge in the number of people catching Covid multiple times. The analysis, which is not definitive and has not been formally reviewed by other scientists, estimates Omicron could be twice as likely to cause a re-infection than earlier variants.

Researcher Prof Juliet Pulliam, from Stellenbosch University, said on December 3: “These findings suggest that Omicron’s selection advantage is at least partially driven by an increased ability to infect previously infected individuals.”

New data shows that having two doses of the Covid jab offers less protection against Omicron than it does against the Delta variant. However, boosters are thought to give 70 per cent protection against the new variant.

Minutes of a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting on November 29, released on December 3, state it is highly likely Omicron could escape immunity to some extent, but by how much is unclear.

The WHO said in late November it could take “several weeks” to gather all the information. The UK government said it would be more in the region of two weeks.

What are the new Covid restrictions?

New “Plan B” measures have been introduced in England in response to rising Omicron cases.

Most notably, NHS Covid Passes – or Covid passports – are being introduced for nightclubs and large venues. People will need to show either proof of vaccination or the result of a recent negative lateral flow test.

Anybody in contact with a Covid case must self-isolate for 10 days if they are unvaccinated, develop Covid symptoms, or test positive. Those who are vaccinated and come into contact with a positive case must test daily but only self-isolate if they test positive.

Secondary school pupils are being advised to wear face masks in communal areas.

In Scotland, anybody who lives with someone who has tested positive must self-isolate for 10 days, whether or not they have tested positive or had the jab. For non-household contacts, Scots must take a PCR test and only leave self-isolation if the test comes back negative and they are double-vaccinated.

What are the most common symptoms of the Omicron variant?

Doctors in South Africa have reported differing symptoms among those infected with the Omicron variant compared to the more common effects of Covid, although it is still too early to know for certain. Many of those affected in South Africa are of a younger age so British doctors are hesitant to say for certain what the full effects may be. 

Breathing difficulties — often the deadliest symptom of Covid — are reportedly minimal among those already treated and patients have not suffered the loss of taste or smell commonly associated with the disease. Instead, medical workers have reported fatigue, muscle aches and high heart rates among patients.

Who is eligible for a Covid vaccine booster?

The government has announced a major expansion of the booster jab rollout, with a target of one million third vaccines a day being laid out. So far, the most people vaccinated by the UK in a single day is 844,000.

They are to be offered to all over-18s in England from this week, with NHS booking opening to all adults on Wednesday.

You are eligible if it has been three months since your second dose. Walk-in appointments are also available at various locations across the country.

“It is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need. But the good news is that our scientists are confident that with a third dose, a booster dose, we can all bring our level of protection back up,” Johnson said in an address on December 12.

Children aged 12 to 15 will also be invited for a second jab.

Why is the new variant called Omicron?

The WHO has been using Greek letters of the alphabet to name and track significant mutations of the virus since December 2020. Omicron is the next in line, but only after skipping “Nu” and “Xi”. There was reportedly concern that Nu could be mistaken for “new”, while Xi is a common surname in China.

What’s the latest guidance on working from home?

As part of the government’s new “Plan B” measures, from Monday 13 December people have been told to work from home “if they can”.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has said reintroducing working from home is likely to have the greatest individual impact on transmission. Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether the government was “ignoring” Sage’s advice, Javid replied: “Our job is to take account of any scientific advice and then decide, and let’s remember in the past when we’ve taken such actions they also come with a really heavy cost on the economy, on people’s social lives, on their mental health.”

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What does it mean for Christmas?

As Christmas closes in, deputy Prime Minster Dominic Raab has refused to rule out a festive lockdown.

The cabinet is meeting to discuss tighter measures, in response to the rapid spread of the variant. Of three options being considered, one involves a return to full lockdown, reports the Daily Telegraph.

Even more stringent possible “Plan C” measures – which would mean pubs return to table service – do not include a ban on household mixing.

Boris Johnson said in his press conference on November 27 that he was “pretty confident or absolutely confident that this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas”.

That’s a pretty low bar, given he basically cancelled Christmas 2020 at the last-minute. But he added: “As we go forward to Christmas, we are in a strong position but the objective of what we’re doing tonight [introducing new measures] is to keep that position strong.”

In a second press conference on November 30, Johnson was asked what he would say to schools scaling back nativity plays and people dropping out of Christmas social events. He replied: “We don’t want people to cancel such events. We think that overwhelmingly the best thing for kids is to be in school, as I’ve said many times throughout this pandemic.”

His comments came after Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said everyone can do their bit to stop the spread of Omicron by reducing the number of social contacts they have – and by “not socialising when we don’t particularly need to”.

Some firms across the UK have already started cancelling their Christmas parties, however.

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