Omicron Covid variant now spreading through 'community transmission' in England, Sajid Javid says

  • ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports on efforts to get the country protected through the booster jab as Omicron cases increase

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 is now spreading through "community transmission across multiple regions of England”, Sajid Javid has said.

Health Secretary Mr Javid told the Commons: “The Omicron variant is continuing to spread here and around the world.

“According to the latest data, there are now 261 confirmed cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336.

“This includes cases with no links to international travel. So, we can conclude that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England.”

He said the government cannot “say for certain” whether Omicron will escape Covid vaccines, or how severe a disease it will cause.

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports on the balance the government has to strike between caution and a pragmatic approach to new variants

Mr Javid said: “Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant than for the Delta variant, but we don’t yet have a complete picture of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or indeed how it interacts with the vaccines.

“We can’t say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.”

He added: “We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves times and to strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against Covid-19.”

Mr Javid said he expects the number of hotel rooms available for international quarantine will be doubled this week and that the government is "ramping up this capacity as quickly as possible".

Addressing the case for adding Nigeria to the travel red list at 4am on Monday, he said: “Analysis from UKHSA (Health Security Agency) shows that at least 21 Omicron cases in England alone are linked to travel from Nigeria, and there’s a strong indication that Omicron is present there. Nigeria also has very strong travel links with South Africa.”

About 350 military personnel will be deployed in England this week to “support the vaccine booster programme” and there are more than 100 personnel deployed in Scotland, the health secretary said.

However Theresa May has warned the government against "stopping and starting sectors of our economy” because of the emergence of new variants.

“When is the Government going to accept that learning to live with Covid, which we will all have to do, means we will almost certainly have an annual vaccine and that we cannot respond to new variants by stopping and starting sectors of our economy which leads to businesses going under and jobs being lost?," she told the Commons.

Professor Paul Hunter ha said Omicron will likely become the dominant Covid variant "within the next weeks". Credit: ITV News Anglia

It comes as an infectious disease expert warned Omicron will likely become the dominant variant "in the next couple of months".

Professor Paul Hunter, from the school of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said on Monday there was a concern Omicron was spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant.

He said: “It is spreading and it's spreading probably more quickly than the Delta variant so it does look as though this will become the dominant variant in the next couple of months.

"Although, that's not an absolute guarantee because we've seen variants in the past that look as though they were going to become an issue and then sort of fizzled out.

"But I think it is almost certainly going to become a dominant variant and increase the number of cases that we see, certainly in the first part of next year."

He said the virus appears to be more likely escape immunity, but said vaccines will still play a big role, particularly in reducing the severity of the disease.

Professor Hunter also estimated that there were more than 1,000 cases in the UK at the moment.

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He said the number of Omicron cases announced in the UK is "almost a substantial underestimate because those cases would've been on samples taken a few days ago and at the rate that this thing is going, we're almost seeing multiples of that".

He added: "I think certainly we've definitely had more than 1,000, maybe more than 2,000 in the UK so far and it's not going to be controlled by border restrictions."

A further 90 cases of Omicron had been confirmed in the UK on Monday - 64 in England, 23 in Scotland, three Wales and no confirmed cases in Northern Ireland - bringing the total number of confirmed Omicron cases to 336. However, not all Covid tests can be assessed for Omicron.

Asked about Christmas, Professor Hunter said he doesn't believe the new variant should interfere with the family get together at Christmas.

He said: “Christmas day, Boxing Day with family, respiratory infections are less likely to spread in those contexts, because you mix with fewer people."

However, he said the problem with Christmas parties is that younger people who might often mingle in crowds at clubs and bars could be mixed in with older colleagues.

In an attempt to curb the spread of the variant, the government has tightened travel restrictions and England has also brought back tougher regulations on the wearing of face coverings in shops and public transport.