UK faces new surge of COVID-19 infections due to Omicron variant

The Omicron Covid-19 variant, which appears to be more contagious than other previous strains of the virus, is expanding fast across the United Kingdom, and the government is preparing a new set of restrictions. The country has already registered the first death of a person with the variant, which is expected become dominant in London in the next few days.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Image credit: Flickr / Number 10.

As of Monday, there were 4,714 confirmed cases of Omicron in the UK, according to Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaking to Parliament, with the total daily infections with all strains estimated at 200,000. Javid said the new variant is spreading “at a phenomenal rate, doubling every two days in infections.” That’s something never seen before in the pandemic, he added.

The UK has already increased its Covid-19 alert level to four, which means a high or rising level of transmission — a level that hadn’t been seen in place since May. New guidelines were also implemented this week, asking people to work from home whenever possible and wear a mask when going to the shops and on public transportation — something that was previously not the case in Britain.

“Sadly at least one patient has now been confirmed to have died with Omicron,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters when visiting a vaccination center. “So I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus – I think that’s something we need to set on one side – and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates.”

Johnson set the target of offering every adult a third Covid-19 vaccine by the end of December, a month earlier than originally planned. The government had already reduced the period between the second and third doses from six months to three – focusing its Covid response in vaccination instead on reimposing further restrictions.

The Prime Minister also said there’s “a tidal wave of Omicron” on its way to the UK but showed confidence on the booster shot, which could bring protection levels back up. Two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine “are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need,” he added, encouraging people to get their new shot. 

The speech seemed to have had an effect, as long queues were reported outside vaccination sites in the UK and the National Health Service (NHS) website to book the booster shot even crashed on Monday. The NHS returned this week to the highest level of emergency preparedness, which means the response to Omicron will be nationally coordinated.

It won’t stop in the UK

The new variant is still being studied by researchers around the world but reportedly has more mutations than those of the Delta variant and could be more resilient against vaccination. The World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron as a variant of concern, the fifth so far to obtain that classification, as countries tighten restrictions. Although it’s still early days, this is by far the most contagious strain of the virus we’ve seen.

Maria van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical manager of the pandemic, told El Pais newspaper that the world is “facing a tsunami of infections” because of the Delta and the Omicron variants. She asked governments not to delay action, suggesting the use of masks, remote working and preparing hospitals but dismissing new quarantines. 

In an initial study, Pfizer and BioNTech, manufacturers of one of the Covid-19 vaccines currently available, found a 25-fold reduction in the neutralization ability of vaccines against the Omicron variant. Nevertheless, the two companies argued an extra boosted shot would provide the sufficient protection to fight the strain of the virus.

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