Pressure is growing for a "circuit-breaker" lockdown to be enforced in the UK after government scientists said "more stringent" coronavirus measures will be needed "very soon" in order to protect the NHS.
Boris Johnson, keen for this Christmas to be better than last, has so far resisted calls to tighten Covid restrictions but his scientific advisers have told him further intervention is needed to keep hospital admissions down.
The UK is experiencing a fresh wave of Covid, caused by the fast-spreading Omicron variant, with daily coronavirus cases over 90,000 for the second day running after the highest ever daily total of 93,045 was recorded Friday.
Another six Omicron deaths have also been reported, meaning seven people in the UK have now died with the variant, while the addition of 10,059 further infections brings the total number of confirmed Omicron cases to 24,968.
And major incident was declared in London after the capital recorded its highest ever daily increase of Covid cases on Saturday.
Documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Saturday showed the government was being told on Thursday that hospitalisations will soon reach at least 3,000 a day without tighter restrictions.
"If the aim is to reduce the levels of infection in the population and prevent hospitalisations reaching these levels, more stringent measures would need to be implemented very soon," the scientists told ministers.
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The plan to defend against Omicron has so far centred around the booster jab campaign, which is now vaccinating more than 800,000 people a day, but scientists believe third doses will not be enough on their own to keep hospital admissions down.
A document, from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group (SPI-M-O) dated Wednesday said it is "highly likely" there will be between 1,000 and 2,000 hospital admissions per day in England by the end of the year.
They added: "The recently announced expanded and expedited booster vaccination programme will not dampen transmission or disease progression in time to mitigate these hospital admissions for the rest of 2021."
The modellers said such high levels of hospital admissions would "almost certainly lead to unsustainable pressure on health and care settings" and added that even if disease was mild there would be consequences such as absences from work or school.
What would new restrictions be?
Minutes from the Sage meeting on Thursday said stricter measures could be needed including "reducing group sizes, increasing physical distancing, reducing duration of contacts and closing high-risk premises".
One scenario considered action equivalent to Step Two of the government's road map out of lockdown earlier this year, which saw hospitality venues serve people outdoors, and limits on social mixing, being taken.
If restrictions equivalent to Step Two were removed in mid-January at the end of the booster rollout "immunity build up means there is the potential to avoid an exit wave of infections, hospitalisations, and deaths on release of measures", the experts said.
The advisers also said that isolation of close contacts of a positive case would likely be more effective at preventing spread than daily lateral flow testing, adding that it would lessen demand for rapid tests "if supply is limited".
When might new measures be enforced?
Speculation is rife that measures similar to a lockdown will be implemented in the UK before new year, however Sage scientists have suggested that would be too late to have an impact.
They warned that delaying introducing stricter measures until 2022 would "greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it is less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings".
The scientists insisted the timing of measures "is crucial".
Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was clear that Plan B measures alone would not be enough to stop the spiralling numbers of cases.
He told Times Radio that "the most effective way of diminishing contact is to have a circuit-breaker.
“Now, you could have it after Christmas, the problem is after Christmas it’s probably too late, it’s probably by then we will have had a huge surge of infections with all the impact upon society.
“When people say ‘look, we don’t want to close down’, of course, we don’t want to close down. But the problem is at the moment, things are closing down anyway, because of the spread of infection.
“So I think we need to act now.”
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation said the Omicron variant had been identified in 89 countries as of Thursday and had a doubling time of between 1.5 and three days.
It said data is still limited on the severity of the strain, but added: “Given rapidly increasing case counts, it is possible that many healthcare systems may become quickly overwhelmed.”
A government spokesperson said: “The Government will continue to look closely at all the emerging data and we’ll keep our measures under review as we learn more about this variant.”