Surging Omicron cases have raised questions about possible Christmas lockdown restrictions – but for millions who test positive from Wednesday Christmas may already be cancelled.
by: Sam Gelder and Liam Geraghty
15 Dec 2021
Prime minister Boris Johnson. Image: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street
The Omicron variant of Covid has been described by government health expert Dr Jenny Harries as “probably the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic”.
On Wednesday the number of daily Covid cases hit a record 78,610 – and the number is expected to keep rising, dwarfing figures for previous strains.
What’s more, government figures show there were 4,671 confirmed new cases of the Omicron variant over the 24 hours, almost doubling the total number of cases to 10,017.
After Christmas was effectively cancelled via lockdown in 2020, Boris Johnson is adamant he won’t be bringing in additional measures this year beyond the plan B restrictions introduced in recent days.
But could his hand be forced? Here’s what we know.
Will Christmas be cancelled?
At a press conference on Wednesday December 15 Boris Johnson repeated his stance that this Christmas will be “considerably better than last Christmas”. So, as it stands, no Christmas will not be cancelled. At least not officially, and that looks unlikely to change.
“We’re not cancelling events, we’re not closing hospitality, we’re not cancelling people’s parties or their abilities to mix,” the prime minister said.
“What we are saying is think carefully before you go. What kind of event is it? Are you likely to meet people who are vulnerable? Are you going to meet loads of people you haven’t met before? And get a test.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had earlier said he believes “with some confidence” that no further restrictions will be required in England before Christmas and that people will be able to enjoy the festive period as planned.
He told Sky News the government wanted people “to be sensible but to enjoy their Christmas”, adding that increased testing and vaccines had put the UK “in a much better position” than last year.
Meanwhile, Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, told MPs on Wednesday the Omicron variant is “probably the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic”.
Giving evidence to the transport committee, Harries said the growth rate – or doubling time – was now under two days “in most regions of the UK”.
“I’m sure for example, the numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we’ve seen in cases for previous variants,” she said.
Harries added that the fast growth rate is in London and Manchester particularly, though it is growing in most areas.
Professor Tim Spector, who helped create the Zoe symptom-tracking app, has said Covid cases in London are accelerating more than during the very first wave of the virus.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday: “In London, where Covid is increasing rapidly, it’s far more likely to be Covid than it is to be a cold.”
Professor Adam Finn, from the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told BBC Breakfast the wave of Omicron was just taking off across the country.
He said: “The wave is coming very fast and in fact alarmingly fast – if anything faster than ever. So it really is a race at the moment.”
That said, with 10 days until Christmas and a 10-day self-isolation requirement, it won’t take an announcement from Boris Johnson to cancel Christmas this year for millions of people.
What if I get Omicron before Christmas?
If you contract the virus less than 10 days before Christmas your festive plans are likely to be at risk.
Under current guidelines, if you test positive or start developing systems, you need to self-isolate for 10 days. Contacts of someone with Covid-19 should also take rapid lateral flow tests every day for seven days to determine whether they have contracted the virus.
That means anyone who tests positive running up to Christmas must not mix with other households until their 10 days is up, in order to break the chain of transmission.
Speaking at the press conference on Wednesday, England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty urged people to prioritise social gatherings that do matter to them, and deprioritise those that don’t.
The Omicron variant has concerned health experts since it was first detected in South Africa in November.
It is thought to be more transmissible than previous variants, meaning it can spread throughout the community more easily. As a result, the government has announced plans to offer all adults in the UK a booster jab by December 31.
On Tuesday, Prof Chris Whitty told a virtual cabinet meeting it remained too early to say how severe Omicron was, but stressed the UK should expect a significant increase in the number of people admitted to hospital.
At Wednesday’s press conference, he added: “This is a really serious threat at the moment. There are several things we don’t know, but all the things that we do know, are bad.”
Initial studies from South Africa have suggested Omicron is a milder variant of the virus, Whitty has warned people not to read too much into these reports.
On Monday Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Many people are claiming this is less severe but let’s see, let’s establish the facts. Even if it is less severe, a smaller percentage of infected people experiencing severe disease is still a huge number if put against a large number of infections.”
“Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril. Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
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