Michael Gove, the housing minister, spoke of a “deeply concerning situation” following a Cobra meeting on Friday after an analysis by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) revealed the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines provided “much lower” levels of protection against omicron when compared with the delta variant.
Omicron accounts for three in 10 of reported Covid-19 cases in London, amid warnings the new variant is more likely to lead to potential hospital admission among the fully vaccinated.
However, the analysis, which looked at 581 people with omicron, suggests a booster dose can “significantly reduce” the risk of symptomatic infection. In the early period after receiving a third jab, effectiveness seemed to “increase considerably” – giving around 70 to 75 per cent protection, the UKHSA said.
Speaking to broadcasters, Mr Gove said the omicron variant was doubling every two to three days in England and was potentially spreading “even faster” in Scotland.
Omicron now accounts for 30 per cent of reported cases in London, said Mr Gove, who warned evidence suggests the variant is “more likely” than previous coronavirus variants to “potentially” lead to hospital admission among the fully vaccinated.
On Saturday, the UK recorded 633 new omicron cases – the highest figure to date.
Despite calls from some scientists for stricter Covid measures, Mr Gove said the current approach being taken was “proportionate”, though he added “we absolutely do need to keep everything under review”.
The minister said: “Action is absolutely required and, as new data comes in, we will consider what action we do require to take in the face of that data.”
Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) on Saturday warned omicron could cause a new wave of the pandemic worse than that seen last winter without a new lockdown.
According to new modelling, the variant could potentially cause higher levels of cases and hospitalisations than those seen in January 2021 if no action was taken. It is also estimated that there could be between 25,000 to 75,000 deaths in England over the next five months if the government does not introduce further restrictions.
Dr Rosanna Barnard from LSHTM’s Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, who co-led the study, said: “In our most optimistic scenario, the impact of omicron in the early part of 2022 would be reduced with mild control measures such as working from home.
“However, our most pessimistic scenario suggests that we may have to endure more stringent restrictions to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed. Mask-wearing, social distancing and booster jabs are vital, but may not be enough.
“Nobody wants to endure another lockdown, but last-resort measures may be required to protect health services if omicron has a significant level of immune escape or otherwise increased transmissibility compared to Delta.
“It is crucial for decision makers to consider the wider societal impact of these measures, not just the epidemiology.”
In the 24 hours up to 9am on Saturday, there had been a further 54,073 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK.
This was down from Friday’s figure of 58,194 cases, which was the highest number since 9 January.
An additional 448 confirmed cases of the omicron variant have also been reported across Britain, bringing the total number to 1,265.