Covid: Why England could face post-Christmas restrictions even if data shows Omicron is milder

England could be facing tougher restrictions even if data shows Omicron is milder. Credit: PA

Will the data being looked at by the government on Omicron make it likely that they choose post-Christmas restrictions? Sources I speak to suggest that they will.

It’s not because they think there’s no chance that Omicron results in milder disease - as suggested in today’s Politico Playbook email - that is something that early studies point to for many people.

But the question around restrictions is based on one thing alone and it’s not general illness or, as one minister put it frankly, the death rate.

It’s all about hospitalisations and pressure on the NHS.

In the UK, Department for Health sources tell me that because London is the “epicentre” of our Omicron pandemic it is where they are focused. The problem is the lag in the data - those in hospital today fell ill two weeks ago or more.

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That’s why Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance told MPs yesterday that it could be some time before we have a full picture. But scientists say waiting for a full picture will mean it’s too late to act - so what is the initial data suggesting?

So in London hospitalisation data is a little bit of good news because hospitalisations aren’t rising at the same pace as cases, which could indicate milder disease but also that the boosters are working.

Data from South Africa this week also suggests people are less likely to be hospitalised by Omicron.

However, because Omicron is spreading so fast it is still resulting in worrying numbers in London hospitals - even now, before those falling ill this week and last will be admitted.

And once in hospital there are some suggestions that people can be just as ill as those with Delta. So the next question, which is hard to answer at this stage, is how long people stay in hospital on average - as that will affect NHS capacity.

All in all, the government is facing a nightmare decision. As one member of the SAGE committee said to me, act too soon and you really hurt the economy with all the fallout from that, but if you wait too long then it is much harder to contain.

Peter Openshaw, who is on the NERVTAG committee that feeds into SAGE, told me that it’s very hard to bring down Omicron from a high level, but quite easy to stop it rising.

'I think it is quite likely that we will need additional restrictions', says Peter Openshaw

And that is why, overall, Cabinet ministers I speak to expect that while it isn’t certain it is highly likely that a decision will be taken for more action after Christmas, however reluctant most ministers are to go there.