The threat of immediate legal restrictions in England is in question after data showed fewer Omicron patients end up in hospital – but top doc Jenny Harries warned there’s still a ‘really fine balance’ as the variant spreads so quickly
Speculation is rising that Boris Johnson may not impose new Covid laws in England before New Year as fresh data emerges on Omicron – and time begins to run out.
Boris Johnson had already delayed a decision on any Covid restrictions in England until after Christmas, despite Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland laying out strict curbs that take effect from Boxing Day.
Now the head of the UK Health Security Agency has said there is “a glimmer of Christmas hope” in data last night, suggesting a person with Omicron Covid is “50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital” than a person with the Delta.
Someone with Omicron is also 31% to 45% less likely to attend A&E compared to Delta, the UKHSA said.
As the UKHSA data emerged, a source told the Telegraph New Year’s Eve restrictions were now “less likely”.
The Prime Minister and Cabinet have still not made a decision on whether to bring in new restrictions to tackle the Omicron variant.
It’s understood Boris Johnson is planning some kind of Covid update next week, on December 27 at the earliest – but it may only come later in the week.
If Boris Johnson does introduce restrictions, it’s thought he has considered options of optional guidance, or full-blown Covid laws in England.
If he only introduces guidance, Parliament will not need to be recalled.
If he introduces Covid laws, he has pledged to recall Parliament before they take force – a process which normally takes at least two days, and had a week’s notice last Christmas.
While there is thought to be no legal minimum notice period to haul back MPs, there are logistical problems of getting Parliament’s staff back, and Tory rebels would be angry at interrupting their holidays.
One source told the Mail: “Colleagues would not vote in our favour if we cut short their Christmas break.”
A senior government source insisted a recall before New Year was still not ruled out, and played down suggestions in the Telegraph that it would not happen.
Data is being collected daily rather than the Prime Minister waiting for one defining report after Christmas. However, experts have told him data on people in hospital should start to be clearer in the week before New Year.
UKHSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries warned despite the data released last night, there is a “really fine balance”.
She said the apparent lower risk of serious disease was “great news” – but Omicron was also “a highly transmissible variant that evades some of our immune defences”.
That means even if a smaller percentage of sufferers go to hospital, the NHS could still be overwhelmed as there are more infected overall – with new cases soaring to 119,789 yesterday.
Dr Harries also warned huge staff sickness rates in the NHS could force new restrictions.
She 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.
“So for example, we have very high rates of individuals off sick – we know that particularly in London, around one in 35 have currently got Omicron.
“Now that’s having an impact on the workforce. So these are not simply about hospitalisation rates.”
Dr Harries also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the findings on hospitalisations were “preliminary” and based on a very small sample of just over 100 people.
She added: “There’s a glimmer of Christmas hope in the findings we published yesterday.
“But it definitely isn’t yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat.”
She went on: “What we’re seeing is Omicron largely in young people and it’s only just now that cases are starting to tip into the older population.
“There are a number of different reasons why we need to look into this data further.”