Covid variant Omicron will cause ‘significant’ rise in hospital admissions, Prof Chris Whitty warns

People queue at a vaccination centre. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

There could be a “significant increase in hospitalisations” caused by the Omicron Covid variant, England’s chief medical officer has warned as Downing Street continued to insist no further coronavirus restrictions will be introduced beyond the Plan B measures.

Professor Chris Whitty told a virtual Cabinet meeting on Tuesday - the first not to take place in person for months - it is “too early to say how severe” the strain is after early suggestions from South Africa that it could be relatively mild.

Boris Johnson also warned his ministers that he believes a “huge spike” of cases of the variant will hit the nation, as he pressured Tory rebels to back his new Plan B restrictions during a Commons vote.

On Tuesday evening, MPs backed the government's proposals to bring in new measures in England, but the PM suffered the two biggest rebellions of his premiership.

Chief medical officer for England Prof Chris Whitty. Credit: PA

It comes as almost 60,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported, the highest total since January 9, driven by the surge in the highly-transmissible variant.

Downing Street did not reject a suggestion that new Omicron cases could hit a million per day next week based on a “valid” estimate from the UK Health Security Agency that daily Covid infections are currently around 200,000.

Omicron is likely to become the dominant variant in London by as early as Wednesday.

Prof Whitty told ministers he can not yet determine whether cases are plateauing in South Africa, where the strain was first identified, and said there is “no reliable evidence” from the nation’s scientists of a peak in case rates.

“He added that it remained too early to say how severe the Omicron variant was but that we can expect a significant increase in hospitalisations as cases increase,” according to No 10’s account of the meeting.

Earlier, South African Medical Association chair Dr Angelique Coetzee told MPs on the Science and Technology Committee that most cases of Omicron have been mild.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics
(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Despite the alarming rise in infections, deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, insisted Plan B restrictions including mandatory mask-wearing and the use of Covid health certificates for large venues will be sufficient over Christmas, meaning families can “spend it with loved ones”.

No 10 also insisted there were “robust” measures in place to protect public services.

And that “any discussion or any warning about hospitals or clinical settings having to close as a result of this variant” was incorrect.

But Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urged people across Scotland to limit their mixing by socialising with only up to two other households indoors either side of Christmas.

No 10 stopped short of giving the same advice when asked, but the prime minister’s official spokesperson said people should “get tested beforehand, to access testing, to use ventilation, to use good hand (and) respiratory hygiene, wash your hands, and that is the advice that we give to the public at this time”.

Downing Street also insisted there is significant testing capacity after it emerged there are no available slots for PCR tests at walk-in or drive-through sites in some parts of England for people with coronavirus symptoms.

The spokesperson insisted ministers are working with Royal Mail and Amazon to expand the number of delivery slots as lateral flow tests became unavailable to be ordered through the government website for the second day running.

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Mr Raab did not rule out further measures being considered for Christmas or New Year, saying: “These issues are always discussed but we have got Plan B, that’s what we think is required over the Christmas period.”

NHS England said it experienced its busiest Monday for vaccinations since the rollout began, with 418,000 booster jabs delivered.