Boris Johnson’s scientists have warned of record hospitalisations from Omicron Covid unless stricter rules are introduced urgently.
SAGE scientists warned ‘Plan B’ measures alone would not be enough to prevent the variant ravaging the NHS – and recommended closing indoor pubs and cancelling crowded events.
It came amid warnings that 50,000 NHS doctors, nurses and staff could be off sick with the variant by Christmas Day.
Labour warned the NHS faced “collapse” if the virus rips through the workforce.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Saturday declared a “major incident” as the virus tore through the capital.
The Prime Minister faced calls to recall Parliament this week, to debate tougher restrictions.
But Mr Johnson is understood to be waiting for firmer data on the severity of the Omicron variant before deciding on stricter measures after Christmas.
And a COBRA meeting, scheduled to take place yesterday to discuss financial assistance for businesses and contingency planning for vital public services brought to their knees by staff absences, was pushed forward and will now take place on Sunday.
A further 90,418 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded on Saturday, the second highest figure on record.
A total of 900 people were admitted to hospital, bringing the weekly total to 6,056 – and 125 died within 28 days of testing positive for the disease.
Papers published on Saturday revealed that because of the delay in testing and registering new cases, the number of daily infections is “almost certainly” in the hundreds of thousands already.
And because of the time it takes for an infection to turn into serious illness, the number of hospitalisations could be ten times higher than they appear at the moment.
The documents warn crowded indoor mixing is the “biggest risk factor” for the spread of the virus – and large gatherings risk becoming super-spreader events.
And even if the Omicron variant is half as severe as the previous Delta strain, scientists believe it’s “plausible” that the unprecedented infection figures will quickly turn into hospital admissions higher than any previous peak.
And with infections doubling every two days, any delay will make the spread harder to control.
Without further interventions, they warned, hospitalisations could reach 2,000 a day by the end of the year, before peaking as high as 3,000.
Officials are understood to be preparing scenarios for a fresh round of restrictions, but none have yet been presented to ministers.
It’s understood Number 10 is waiting for more hard data on hospitalisations and vaccine effectiveness, expected between Christmas and New Year, before making the decision.
But scientists fear that even delaying until after Boxing Day while infections double every two days, will guarantee a dramatic wave of hospitalisations in the new year, and urged the government to act sooner.
Sage scientist Professor Stephen Reicher, speaking to Times Radio in a personal capacity, said restrictions after Christmas would “probably” be too late, and urged the government to “act now”.
“The problem is after Christmas it’s probably too late,” he said. “It’s probably by then we will have had a huge surge of infections with all the impact upon society.”
Meanwhile, NHS staff are ‘holding their breath, waiting for the storm’ as hospitals brace for a surge of admissions while thousands of staff are isolating with covid.
The British Medical Association warned as many as 50,000 doctors, nurses and hospital staff could be struck down with the disease and forced to self-isolate by Christmas Day.
BMA Council Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul warned the ravaged staffing numbers would lead to appointments and operations being cancelled, adding: “We’re already seeing services being affected by staff absences, and these estimates show it could get far, far worse.“
NHS figures published this week show hospital bed occupancy already nearing 94%.
And some NHS trusts this week reported as many as 10% of staff off sick.
NHS nurse Amy Fancourt said the situation was “like we’re looking up a mountain we already climbed – and being told to keep walking.”
She added: “We are here, holding our breath, waiting for the storm.”
Government and NHS guidance for health workers was relaxed this week to allow people living in the same house as someone who tests positive to come to work.
New rules say staff can come to work if they have two doses of vaccine, have had a negative PCR test, and complete daily lateral flow tests before work, for 10 days.
Writing for the Mirror, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting warned: “If the virus rips through our NHS, staff won’t be able to come to work and the health service could collapse.”
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey, who is isolating after testing positive for Covid-19, called on the PM to recall parliament tomorrow (MON).
He said: “Throughout the pandemic, Boris Johnson has consistently reacted too late, missed opportunities and refused to act when the scientists told him to.
“That is why the Liberal Democrats are calling on the government to recall a virtual Parliament on Monday at this time of national crisis. We cannot allow the prime minister to sit on his hands while the NHS and businesses are on the brink of collapse.
“Ministers must explain the latest scientific advice to MPs and ensure a proper debate over what future Covid measures, including support to help businesses through this increasingly difficult period.”
Health ministers in South Africa, where the Omicron variant originated, say high vaccination rates and immunity from previous infections appear to be protecting against the most severe symptoms.
Officials said last night that while there had been an uptick in hospital admissions, it was lower than in previous waves of the pandemic.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.