ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner reports on the UK's response to the rise of the Omicron variant
The UK could see one million Omicron cases by the end of December and the new Covid-19 variant could become the dominant strain of the virus in the country within days, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said.
At a briefing on Friday, the UKHSA said analysis of 581 people with confirmed Omicron cases showed the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines provided “much lower” levels of protection against Omicron when compared with the Delta variant which is currently the dominant strain in the UK.
However, scientists did say the early data showed vaccine effectiveness "considerably increased" soon after a booster dose, raising protection to around 70-75%.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the UKHSA, said: “These early estimates should be treated with caution but they indicate that a few months after the second jab, there is a greater risk of catching the Omicron variant compared to Delta strain.
"The data suggest this risk is significantly reduced following a booster vaccine, so I urge everyone to take up their booster when eligible.
"We expect the vaccines to show higher protection against the serious complications of Covid-19, so if you haven’t yet had your first two doses please book an appointment straight away."
Scientists from across the world have cautioned the full impact of Omicron is not yet known and it will take a few more weeks to completely understand its transmissibility, lethality and ability to avoid vaccines.
Omicron is spreading quickly across South Africa, with it making up 90% of new cases which have risen from 200 per day in early November to more than 22,000 on Thursday.
On Friday, South African scientists said they see no sign that Omicron is causing more severe illness.Hospital data show that Covid-19 admissions are now rising sharply in more than half of the country's nine provinces, but not as quickly as cases, and deaths are not rising as dramatically.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said on Friday: "Preliminary data does suggest that while there is increasing rate of hospitalisation... it looks like it is purely because of the numbers rather than as a result of any severity of the variant itself, this Omicron." The news about the growth of Omicron came as UK leaders held a Cobra meeting on Friday afternoon to discuss the latest data and their co-ordinated response, after which Cabinet minister Michael Gove said the UK faces a “deeply concerning situation”.Following the meeting, Mr Gove said the UK faced a “deeply concerning situation” given the fast rate the Omicron variant is spreading across the country.He said Covid were as high as they have been since January, Omicron was spreading fast in England and Scotland and the variant could already make up 30% of cases in London.
The UKHSA also said an additional 448 confirmed cases of Omicron had been detected in the UK, bringing the total to 1,265.
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The UK reported 58,194 new coronavirus cases on Friday - the highest number of daily infections in 11 months.
The last time a higher daily figure was reported was on January 9, when 59,937 cases were logged.The government has also been warning infections could skyrocket, and all four nations of the UK have increased restrictions in some way in response to the new variant.
People across the UK have been told to work from home and many indoor venues woth large capacities have been told to require proof of Covid status in a bid to reduce the variant's spread.
Vaccine passports will be introduced in England next week for the first time.
The government in England have so far denied rumours more measures could be implemented but Nicola Sturgeon has said she "can't rule out further measures" and the Scottish Government will "consider its next steps very carefully", as she warned of a possible "tsunami of infections".
People in Scotland have also been told to postpone their Christmas parties as cases continue to rise.