The PM’s scientific advisors said on Monday that the decision to act ‘will need to be made sooner than uncertainties can be resolved’. But he’s now planning no announcement until after Christmas
Boris Johnson’s scientific advisors warned he must act fast over Covid restrictions, it emerged today – but he has delayed any decision until after Christmas anyway.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) met on Monday and warned Omicron cases were rising “very rapidly”.
The experts said data was uncertain, but warned: “Policy decisions (either to do nothing or something) will need to be made sooner than these uncertainties can be resolved.”
SAGE warned Omicron would have to be about 90% less severe than Delta for hospital admissions not to reach the previous peak – “unless the wave peaks early for other reasons, which should not be assumed for planning purposes”.
SAGE added: “The earlier interventions happen the greater the effect they will have.
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“Even a short intervention could reduce both peak and total admissions, particularly if introduced early enough.
“The main benefit of a short intervention would be in flattening the peak of admissions, and to allow more people to receive boosters.
“If measures are implemented later, when hospital admissions have risen significantly, measures may need to be in place for longer and may be too late to avert a period with very high admissions.”
Yet it’s understood the Prime Minister is not planning to make any announcement on new Covid restrictions for England until after Christmas.
That is despite Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all spelling out stringent measures as soon as Boxing Day.
Mr Johnson has been held back from announcing any new rules by a Tory Cabinet spat – but is also buoyed by data suggesting the Omicron variant is less severe.
Imperial College London research indicates people with Omicron are 15-20% less likely to enter hospital, and 40-45% less likely to need a hospital stay of one night or more, than people with Delta.
Imperial’s research was released last night, two days after the SAGE meeting whose minutes were only published today.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said it was “good, encouraging news”.
But Imperial warned the benefit “appears to be offset” by the speed at which the variant is spreading – with confirmed cases topping 100,000 a day for the first time.
And Mr Javid warned: “If a much smaller percentage of people are at risk of hospitalisation, if that is a smaller percentage of a much larger number, there could still be significant hospitalisation.”
Tory ministers have sought to criticise SAGE’s modelling for being too gloomy.
SAGE subgroup the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O) met on Sunday and agreed “key sensitivities” – including how severe Omicron was – were still not known.
One set of modelling assumed Omicron’s “intrinsic severity” was the same as Delta. However, the same modelling assumed the “realised severity” was 50% that of Delta.
Intrinsic severity refers to comparing two strains when all the people infected are exactly the same – such as vaccine status and prior infections.
Realised severity is different, because Omicron appears more likely than Delta to infect people who have previously been vaccinated or infected. That means they already have some immunity, and are less likely to end up in hospital than the unvaccinated.
Former SAGE member Sir Jeremy Farrar and Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham both backed the “wait and see” approach after the Imperial data.
Sir Jeremy tweeted: “With data that omicron is not as severe in those vaccinated & the obvious behaviour change in recent days leading up to Christmas very reasonable to pause & consider latest data & if any further actions needed post-Xmas.”
Mr Burnham added: “I do actually think they’ve been right to take time to look at the data that’s coming through.
“Because what we know is, it’s certain that if you put restrictions in it’s going to damage people’s mental health.”
SAGE member Prof Andrew Hayward told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s undeniably good news, but I think we’re definitely not out of the danger zone.
“I think perhaps we can downgrade this from a hurricane to a very severe storm.
“The NHS is already immensely overstretched and I think that’s just going to get worse.”
Wales and Northern Ireland will shut nightclubs from Boxing Day. And in both Wales and Scotland, Boxing Day sports will effectively be behind closed doors.
But senior government sources have confirmed Boris Johnson is not planning to make an announcement on further restrictions until after Boxing Day.
While data will be reviewed daily – including on Boxing Day – there are not expected to be any announcements either way before Christmas.
That suggests, unless there is a sudden further deterioration, no announcement is likely until December 27 at the earliest.