Has the Omicron variant peaked in the UK?

Has the Omicron variant peaked in the UK?
Professor Chris Witty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, suggested the number cases may fall “faster than previous peaks”

Boris Johnson has announced there will be no further social restrictions imposed in England before New Year’s Eve to tackle the Omicron variant of Covid-19, despite a daily increase in cases.

The decision has been criticised by scientists and doctors, who continue to call for new restrictions to stop the spread, a stance opposed by some senior cabinet ministers who object to further constraints on public freedom and say they are unconvinced by the current data on Omicron.

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), for one, has warned that Omicron is “coming at us like an express train” and insisted that Mr Johnson must give the public a “good, clear message” about how “serious the crisis is”.

The UK recorded 183,037 new Covid cases on Wednesday — another new record, and some experts believe the number of Omicron cases are a while away from hitting a peak.

Speaking to BBC’s Good Morning Scotland on Tuesday, Scotland’s National Clinical Director, Professor Jason Leitch, said the modelling shows the peak may be “somewhere between mid to late January, maybe even pushing into February.”

Professor Leitch added that it would “depend quite a lot on human behaviour”.

“We may not want the peak early because if this is an enormous wave we may want to draw it out over a longer period because you might then get more people vaccinated,” he said.

Professor Chris Witty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, meanwhile suggested the number cases may fall “faster than previous peaks”.

He told a House of Commons Health and Social Care committee earlier this month: “It will probably peak really quite fast and my anticipation is it may come down faster than previous peaks, but I wouldn’t want to say that for sure.”

The number of people in hospital in England on Wednesday was 10,462, marking a sharp week-on-week rise from figures on 22 December, when there were 7,080 people in England in hospital. However, this is still lower than the peak of the Alpha wave in January, which saw 34,336 in hospital with Covid-19.

The difference between now and our situation last year is, of course, the vaccines, with 89.9 per cent of British people aged 12 and over having had a first jab, 82.3 per cent having had their second and 57.5 per cent a booster, according to the official figures.

The failure of the soaring infection rate to translate into a significant rise in hospitalisations and deaths (so far) is further testament to the success of the vaccine rollout this calendar year and supports the observation of intensive care consultant Rupert Pearse, who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 21 December that unjabbed people accounted for between 80 and 90 per cent of patients he had seen at Queen Mary’s University Hospital in London.

The data also reports a clear correlation between vaccines and infections regionally, with those areas that have 30 per cent or more of the population unvaccinated suffering an increasing number of cases.

For example, according to the latest figures, Lambeth, south London has a case rate of 2,415.4 per 100,000, with a vaccination uptake rate of only 65.1%.

While it is certainly true that the feared increase in hospitalisations and deaths has yet to materialise and that the vaccines appear to be helping keep Omicron at bay, as always with this pandemic so much remains unknown and it is too soon to make any definitive judgements or rest on our laurels.

We still do not have enough clinical data to be certain about the properties of the new strain and, as UCL’s Professor Christina Pagel has warned, the increased amount of intergenerational indoor social mixing about to take place over Christmas could yet drive cases spiralling north again.

Unquestionably one of the biggest threats at present is public complacency towards observing restrictions, with many determined to have a pleasant Christmas whatever the cost and patience already sorely tested and trust undeniably damaged by the run of recent revelations about illicit Westminster parties last year.

Messaging obviously remains key at this pivotal moment and Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, has said Mr Johnson’s government should “emphasise the uncertainty alongside the risk of acting too late” in its communications with the public in the interests of transparency.