Are more Covid rules coming? Whitty says increased 'intervention' may be needed as cases at new high
More coronavirus restrictions may be needed in the UK if scientists confirm the booster jab to be less effective against the Omicron variant, as many already believe.
The speed at which Omicron spreads was demonstrated as the record number of daily cases in the UK was smashed by almost 10,000 infections.
A further 88,376 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded on Thursday, beating the previous record set yesterday.
Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty said ministers will "clearly" soon be forced to consider once again how far they want to move up the "ladder of intervention" as a response to the new wave of coronavirus.
Prof Whitty has warned Britons to "de-prioritise" social gatherings ahead of Christmas in order to avoid catching the fast-spreading variant, and while Boris Johnson on Thursday mimicked that advice he has resisted pressure to tighten Covid restrictions.
The PM did not give a direct response when asked what would have to happen for further measures to be considered, but said he hopes Plan B restrictions and booster jabs will mitigate against the new strain.
Professor Whitty however was not so optimistic. He's insisted booster jabs do offer good protection against Omicron but has warned the variant could still cause illness despite vaccines.
The government's top medical adviser said it "is not sensible" for ministers to build their plan around assumptions that everything will go right in terms of vaccine efficacy.
"If we were in a situation for example where it looked as if the boosters were not going to be as effective against severe disease and transmission... then ministers are clearly going to have to consider what else needs to be done," he said.
"The bigger the threat," he added, the "further up [the ladder of intervention] you are probably going to have to go".
Chris Whitty: We may need to move up the ladder of intervention...
People across the UK are already forced to wear face masks in almost all indoor settings and prove their Covid status when entering large venues under emergency measures brought in to slow the spread of Omicron.
The PM has refused to rule out bringing in tougher measures in order to protect the NHS but said he will seek the approval of parliament if he is forced to tighten restrictions.
Speaking to broadcasters on Thursday morning he said he will do "whatever I have to, to protect the public".
"There's a lot of Omicron around, be careful, exercise caution if you want to avoid isolation, getting unwell, over Christmas. Implement Plan B but get boosted now is the fastest route back to normality because the booster does give you an excellent level of protection and the plan is to offer everybody in the country who's eligible a booster by the end of the year."
The chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency warned that the Omicron R value - its reproduction rate - was estimated to be between three and five.
Dr Susan Hopkins told MPs on the Commons health committee reliable data on Omicron's R value would be available between Christmas and new year, adding at least 250 patients would need to be admitted to hospital before UKHSA can make a "severity assessment" on the variant.
Prof Whitty told MPs on Thursday that Plan B and the "really critically the booster programme" are intended to slow things down, "but obviously if the facts change and it becomes clearer that things are heading the wrong way, ministers are always going to take constant reviews of this".
Even if boosters do prevent most people from falling ill, Prof Whitty said its extremely high transmission rate will mean a lot of people still "simultaneously fall ill".
He did strike an optimistic tone when speaking to MPs on the Health and Social Care Select Committee, telling them that he expects a wide range of antivirals and vaccines will replace the need for restrictions and do "almost all of the heavy lifting".
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"If I project forward, I would anticipate in a number of years - possibly 18 months, possibly slightly less, possibly slightly more - that we will have polyvalent vaccines, which will cover a much wider range, and we will probably have several antivirals.
"We've already got two reasonable ones, and a variety of other counter-measures that mean that the great majority - and probably almost all of the heavy lifting when we get a new variant, unless it's extremely different - can be met by medical means.
"I don't see this as a kind of 'we are going to have to do this repeatedly every few months' situation.
"I think what will happen is the risks will gradually decrease over time. It's incremental, it's not a sudden thing.
"But I think each six months will be better than the last six months. How fast that will be... it's always dangerous to predict science."