ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt breaks down what the data means as cases hit record numbers and UK nations start to bring in tougher measures
There appears to be less risk of being hospitalised by the Omicron Covid variant than the previous dominant strain, a heavily-anticipated study on the impact of the variant has found.
Data from Imperial College's Covid-19 response team found that although the chances of being hospitalised by Omicron are low when compared to the Delta variant, there is a higher risk of being infected in the first place - as Omicron is more transmissible and more likely to evade immunity from current vaccines.
The report's authors described the findings of the study, which looked at cases in England between December 1 to 14, as "good news to a degree" but stressed "it's still early days [and] not the final answer".
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The data has largely been viewed as one of the driving forces behind decision making on bringing in tougher restrictions in England.
A lack of information on Omicron's severity and its hospitalisation rate were two key reasons why Boris Johnson said on Tuesday there will not be a change in Covid rules before December 25.
Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have all already announced tougher rules after Christmas.
What are the key findings from the Imperial College study?
The risk of being hospitalised by Omicron is lower than the risk of being hospitalised by Delta
There is a larger risk of being infected with Omicron than with Delta
Those who have had at least two vaccine doses are "substantially protected" against hospitalisation from Omicron - even if the vaccine isn't as effective in preventing an initial infection
Presenting the findings, Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College's Covid-19 response team said: "These are hot off the press figures. We haven't put them through models to see full implications.
"It's good news to a degree - if these go through to more severe outcomes in terms of length of hospital stay, it probably doesn't actually change much."
The expert continued: "It's still early days. We may see a more complex/more optimistic picture in terms of how long people stay in hospital and ICU.
"It's one step in understanding severity, not the final answer."
'We're seeing a large number of cases, an increasing number of cases, of Omicron'
Co-author Professor Azra Ghani, Chair in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College London, said the results were "good news" but urged caution.
"That also has to be balanced against the fact that we know the vaccines are a little bit less efficacious against the Omicron virus, compared to the Delta virus.
"But what's most important is the background risk. We're seeing a large number of cases, an increasing number of cases, of Omicron - and that has the potential to result in a large number of hospitalisations that could overwhelm the NHS."
'Encouraging news - but not really, really good news' - ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan explains why
ITV News’ Health Editor Emily Morgan said the study was positive news, but only to a certain extent.
She noted that the data suggests Omicron is 10% less severe than Delta, while the risk of reinfection with the new variant is five times higher than with Delta.
A separate study released on Wednesday, by scientists in the Scotland-wide Early Pandemic Evaluation and Enhanced Surveillance of Covid-19 group, found early data suggested that Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in risk of hospital admission when compared with Delta.
The authors of both reports stressed these were early assessments of the new variant.
Dr Jim McMenamin, the national Covid-19 incident director for Public Health Scotland, labelled the findings from Scottish scientists a “qualified good-news story”, but said that it was “important we don’t get ahead of ourselves”
“The potentially serious impact of Omicron on a population cannot be underestimated. And a smaller proportion of a much greater number of cases that might ultimately require treatment can still mean a substantial number of people who may experience severe Covid infections that could lead to potential hospitalisation,” he said.
ITV News Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt added that the two studies will "undoubtedly bolster those in the Cabinet that have been resisting more restrictions".
Does this data mean England will now see tougher Covid restrictions after Christmas?ITV News Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt has the answers
But he added that the government will also factor other statistics into its decision-making, including how the NHS is coping with Omicron's infection rate being higher than Delta's.
"One study on Wednesday suggested one in 10 NHS doctors are off work with Covid," he said.
On Wednesday, the UK recorded more than 100,000 Covid cases in a day for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Daily cases have been rising in the past few days and a further 106,122 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases have been recorded in the UK as of 9am on Wednesday, the government said. It is the largest daily rise in confirmed infections since the pandemic began.
A further 140 people had died within 28 days of testing positive and 8,008 Covid patients are in hospital.