Britons can celebrate a ‘glimmer of Christmas hope’ on Covid, says health boss

Britons can celebrate “a glimmer of Christmas hope” following preliminary findings that people with the Omicron coronavirus variant are less likely to go to hospital than those infected by Delta, according to one of the country’s top health officials.

Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, was speaking on Friday after the UKHSA reported that people infected with Covid-19 were between 50 and 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital with Omicron than Delta.

She said the findings had been based on “some very, very preliminary analysis and very small numbers”. Critically, Omicron was currently being seen largely in young people “and it’s only just now that the cases are starting to tip into the older population, particularly the 60 and 70 plus year olds”.

Harries, who earlier this month described Omicron as probably the most “significant threat” since the start of the pandemic, told the BBC: “[I]t definitely isn’t yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat.”

Asked about a threshold for the degree of pressure on the NHS that would trigger a UK government decision to impose further coronavirus restrictions in England, she suggested that not only the level of hospital admissions but also the number of health service workers off sick would play a part.

Data from NHS England on Thursday showed the number of staff forced to self-isolate because of Covid had increased by 54 per cent in the past week.

A total of 18,829 NHS staff were absent because of coronavirus infection or self-isolation requirements on December 19, up from about 12,000 a week earlier. In London, the area worst hit by Omicron, there was a 2.5-fold increase in staff absences in the past week.

Harries said ministers “will look at all of the data that we have available and that isn’t simply what the epidemiology is saying, it’s how it’s impacting society”.

In London about one in 35 people currently has Omicron. “Now that’s having an impact on the workforce,” she added. “So these are not simply about hospitalisation rates.”

Responding to the UKHSA’s separate analysis on Thursday that the protection of Covid vaccine booster shots begins to wane after 10 weeks, Harries suggested the top-ups would continue to have “a very significant positive impact on preventing serious illness and death”.

The NHS will offer boosters throughout the Christmas weekend as it races to meet a target to offer all over-18s a third shot by the end of the month.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his Christmas message, urged people to get booster jabs “not just for ourselves, but for friends and family and everyone we meet”.

He added: “That, after all, is the teaching of Jesus Christ . . . that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves.”

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