ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports on the significance of the indications that Omicron appears to be more transmissible than the Delta variant
The Prime Minister updated his Cabinet on the latest Covid situation on Tuesday, as a scientist warned cases of the Omicron variant in the UK are soon expected to be higher than in some African countries currently on the travel red list.
Following the Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister said it was too early to draw conclusions on the characteristics of Omicron but early indications were that it is more transmissible than Delta.”
But the spokesman implied stricter Covid rules were not being considered, saying there was no debate around the Cabinet table on whether to introduce Plan B to control the virus.
Mr Johnson later said “now is the time” for people to get a booster jab - the programme has been accelerated in recent weeks in response to the threat of Omicron.
“The booster programme is the fastest in Europe; I think we have done more boosters than any comparable country,” he told reporters.
“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t go faster.”
He added: “I would certainly say to people that now is the time to get it and, of course, from Monday, we will be contracting the interval so you go down to three months and that will lead to a big uptick in the programme as well.”
It comes as Professor Tim Spector said early data suggested cases of the coronavirus mutation are doubling every two days, putting it on course to overtake some of the 11 countries from where travellers to the UK are now required to quarantine to try to stymie community transmission.
New rules came into force in the early hours of Tuesday, requiring all travellers to take a pre-departure test before heading to England.
They will not be able to travel if they test positive.
Prof Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, told BBC Breakfast there was “very little point” in having travel restrictions if case numbers exceeded those in red list countries.
He said: “The official estimates are about 350-odd Omicron cases, and because the current testing is missing a lot of those, it’s probably at least 1,000 to 2,000 I would guess at the moment.
“And we are expecting this to be doubling about every two days at the moment, so if you do your maths – assume it’s 1,000 at the moment, and you think it’s going to be doubling every two days, you can see that those numbers are going to be pretty (high) certainly in about 10 days’ time.
“By that time, we’ll probably have more cases than they will in some of those African countries.
“So I think these travel restrictions do perhaps have their place initially, when cases are really low here and really high in the other country, but when we reach that equilibrium, there’s very little point in having them, in my opinion.”
At least 364 cases of Omicron had been confirmed across the UK as of Monday, including 261 in England, 99 in Scotland and four in Wales.
It comes as the health secretary confirmed the strain was now circulating in communities in the country, rather than coming in from overseas travellers.
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Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said he thought Omicron would take over from Delta in the UK as the dominant variant of coronavirus “within a matter of weeks”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we can now say that this variant is spreading faster in the UK than the Delta variant at the same time, and that’s something that I think was unclear until very recently.
“The fact that so far we have seen not very many severe cases of Omicron, maybe because it is infecting these individuals with some amount of immunity and that’s good news that they aren’t having tonnes of severe disease, but I think it is too soon to assume that fundamentally Omicron is more mild than say Delta.”
Prof Spector added: “If early reports pan out – we don’t absolutely know this, we’ve got hardly any data in this country where we have high rates of vaccination – but if we assume that it is not more severe and possibly milder than Delta, but it’s much more transmissible.
“So it means that perhaps twice as many people are going to pass it on from when someone gets it in a crowd."
“That’s going to be good news for the individual because we have less cases going to hospital, and partly this is due to our high vaccination rates.
“But it also means that eventually you will get more deaths and problems, because nearly everyone is infected or reinfected.
“And so, this means that for the country as a whole, it could be worse news but better for the individual. So it’s absolutely no reason for complacency.”
The Prime Minister is expected to give an update on whether any further restrictions are necessary within the next two weeks.