Covid: People infected with Omicron up to 70% less likely to need hospital treatment, study suggests

Soaring case numbers means the NHS is still feeling the strain of the Omicron variant, as ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener reports

People infected with the Omicron Covid variant are up to 70% less likely to be hospitalised than those with the previous dominant strain, data from UK government public health experts has suggested.

Based on a study of approximately 100 people, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said on Thursday that compared to those infected with the Delta variant, people with Omicron are 50% to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital.

Despite describing the data as "promising", the health secretary warned cases of the variant are continuing to rise "at an extraordinary rate", and data continues to be monitored "hour by hour".

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The UKHSA's data also suggests those with the new strain are 31% to 45% less likely to be treated in accident and emergency departments.

Although it appears the risk of being hospitalised by Omicron is comparatively low, the agency added that there is a higher chance of being infected in the first place - as Omicron is more transmissible and more likely to evade immunity from current vaccines.

What are the key findings from the UKHSA's study?

  • People with Omicron are up to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital than those with Delta

  • Those with the new strain are up to to 45% less likely to go to A&E

  • Most Omicron infections are among those aged 20 to 40 years old

  • The new strain is believed to be infecting more people who have previously had Covid - almost 10% of people with Omicron have had it before

  • Vaccination gives less protection against Omicron than Delta, but depending on the type of vaccine given for the first two doses, the booster jab adds 15% to 25% more protection against symptomatic infection with Omicron

  • Protection against Omicron starts to wane 10 weeks after booster vaccination

UKHSA cautioned that its analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of Omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups.

The announcement comes as the UK experienced yet another record-breaking number of daily reported Covid cases, with 119,789 reported as of 9am on Thursday.

The UKHSA's findings echo those from Imperial College on Thursday, which suggest there is less risk of needing hospital treatment with Omicron compared to Delta. Imperial College professor Neil Ferguson labelled the findings "good news - to a degree".

The studies have been viewed as some of the driving forces behind the government's decision-making on bringing in tougher restrictions in England.

Is this the data the UK government has been waiting on before announcing a Covid plan for England? ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener explains

A lack of information on Omicron's severity and its hospitalisation rate were among the key reasons why Boris Johnson said 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.

ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt noted that alongside data on Omicron's severity and transmissibility, England's government will factor other statistics into its decision-making, including how the NHS is coping with Omicron's relatively high infection rate.

UKHSA epidemiologist Susan Hopkins says although Omicron's risk to individuals is relatively low, the pressure it places on the NHS needs to be considered

UKHSA epidemiologist Susan Hopkins said: "We've got very high amounts of infections circulating so the more infections that we have circulating in our population, the more people will be admitted to hospitals and put hospitals under pressure."

She stressed the data "does not change any of the advice" around face coverings, testing, and exercising caution.

UKHSA chief executive Jenny Harries said the analysis “shows an encouraging early signal that people who contract the Omicron variant may be at a relatively lower risk of hospitalisation than those who contract other variants.” But she added that “cases are currently very high in the UK, and even a relatively low proportion requiring hospitalisation could result in a significant number of people becoming seriously ill.”

'Still to early to determine next steps': Health secretary Sajid Javid urged the public to remain cautious over the Christmas break.

Mr Javid said: “This new UKHSA data on Omicron is promising – while two doses of the vaccine aren’t enough, we know boosters offer significant protection against the variant and early evidence suggests this strain may be less severe than Delta. “However, cases of the variant continue to rise at an extraordinary rate – already surpassing the record daily number in the pandemic. Hospital admissions are increasing, and we cannot risk the NHS being overwhelmed." He added: “This is early-stage analysis and we continue to monitor the data hour by hour. It is still too early to determine next steps, so please stay cautious this Christmas and get your booster as soon as possible to protect yourself and your loved ones.”