U.K. health officials claim that omicron spreads faster than the delta strain, and will likely replace it within days. On Friday, the U.K. had 58,194 cases of coronavirus, which was the highest since January. However, it is not clear what percentage were the omicron variant.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Conservative government, reintroduced restrictions that had been lifted nearly six months ago due to concerns about the new variant. For indoor use, masks must be worn and vaccine certificates must be presented to gain entry to nightclubs. People are encouraged to work remotely if they can.
Scientists agree that this is unlikely to be enough.
Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine released models Saturday that suggested that omicron could cause a wave of infections by January and could lead to between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths across England in the next five month if no other precautions are taken.
The pessimistic scenario sees half a billion people infected by the virus by April. It also predicts that daily hospital admissions will double from the January 2021 peak. The British government has not peer reviewed the study of the scientists who advise it.
The extent to which the variant is able to escape protection from vaccines and how effective booster shots at strengthening immunity will determine how many infections there are. Both of these factors remain unknown.
Scientists from South Africa, the country where omicron was discovered for the first time, believe there are signs that it could cause less severe diseases than delta. However, they caution that it is still too early to know.
Rosanna Barnard, from the school's Center for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, stated that in the most optimistic scenario, the impact of Omicron in the first part of 2022 would be lessened with mild control measures like working from home. "But, our pessimistic scenario indicates that we might have to face more strict restrictions to ensure that the (health care service) does not become overwhelmed."
Johnson's government claims it does not intend to take tougher measures but will offer every person 18 years and older a booster shot of vaccine before January 31st.
According to the U.K. Health Security Agency, Friday's announcement indicated that AstraZeneca vaccines and Pfizer vaccines are less effective at preventing symptomatic infection in people who have been exposed to omicron. However, preliminary data suggest that effectiveness may increase to 70% to 75% following a third dose.