‘Very stringent Covid rules’ may be required to contain large Omicron wave, warns Sage

Scientists advising the government on the new Omicron variant of coronavirus have warned of a “very large wave of infections” and high numbers of people hospitalised by the virus.

Minutes from a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting held on Monday were published on Friday. 

In the document the expert panel suggests it is highly likely that the Omicron variant could escape immunity to some extent, but that it is unclear as to how much.

"Even if there continues to be good protection against severe disease for individuals from vaccination (including boosters), any significant reduction in protection against infection could still result in a very large wave of infections," it read.

"This would in turn lead to potentially high numbers of hospitalisations even with protection against severe disease being less affected.

"The size of this wave remains highly uncertain but may be of a scale that requires very stringent response measures to avoid unsustainable pressure on the NHS. If vaccine efficacy is substantially reduced, then a wave of severe disease should be expected."

The news came as Wales announced it has detected its first Omicron infection. 

Scotland has confirmed 29 cases but Nicola Sturgeon said on Friday she expected the figure to rise "significantly" after several 'superspreader' events - including a Steps concert - were identified as sources of transmission.

As of Thursday England also had 29 confirmed cases.

The Sage report revealed that experts had advised the government to "be prepared for a potentially very significant wave of infections with associated hospitalisations now".

Meanwhile, scientists at a meeting of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) subgroup on 25 November said Omicron is capable of causing a new wave of coronavirus infections of a “magnitude similar, or even larger, than previous waves.”

In a note from the meeting, released by Sage today, scientists conclude: “We cannot exclude that this wave would be of a magnitude similar, or even larger, than previous waves.”

It added: “Although data on disease severity associated with B.1.1.529 are not yet available, a large wave of infections will be accompanied by a wave of severe cases and the subgroup cannot rule out that this may be sufficient to overwhelm NHS capacity.”

Scientists said it is highly likely that Omicron is a “fit” virus that is undergoing extensive community transmission in South Africa and potentially in other places. But they said there is insufficient data to make comments on the severity of disease brought by the variant.

Many European countries have halted flights from southern African countries; Germany allows arrivals of planes from those countries only if they carry exclusively German citizens, but those passengers now must self-isolate for two weeks once they land. Switzerland has announced 10-day quarantines even for those coming from parts of Europe, including Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and the UK - the first European countries where the new mutant variant was found.

But questions are now being asked as to whether travel restrictions are enough. 

Boris Johnson visits Lordship Lane Primary Care Centre in London, England.
Boris Johnson visits Lordship Lane Primary Care Centre in London, England.

On Wednesday European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen suggested that the entire European Union should consider mandatory COVID vaccinations in response to the spread of the “highly contagious” Omicron variant.

While not much is known about the Omicron strain of coronavirus, fears that it may evade vaccines are growing.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention (ECDP) said on Thursday: "The presence of multiple mutations in the spike protein of the Omicron VOC indicates a high likelihood o reduction of neutralising activity by antibodies induced by infection or vaccination."

And on Friday, Oslo health officials confirmed that all 17 suspected Omicron infections contracted at a party in the Norwegian capital were suffered by fully people who were fully vaccinated.

The World Health Organization has labelled Omicron a Variant Of Concern, and has warned that it appears to carry a higher risk of reinfection than previous mutations.