The views of experts and health professionals on the current UK situation with the Omicron variant.
First published in December 2021.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY...
... on the Omicron variant.
Professor Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology, School of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, Member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) subcommittee on behavioural science:
“On 30 January 2020, the WHO urged countries to go early, go hard on Covid. Never has this been truer than with Omicron.
“With a virus that doubles in 48 hours, wait two days and you have twice as big a problem. Requiring twice as much action to deal with it.
“GO EARLY, GO HARD!”
Dr Christian Yates, Senior Lecturer in Mathematical Biology, University of Bath:
“We are letting covid levels rise so high that businesses will close, not just because customers are not coming, but because too many staff have got covid.
“Getting on top of covid is the way to help the economy.
Dr Nisreen Alwan, Associate Professor in Public Health, University of Southampton. Public Health. Epidemiology:
“No single measure is perfect at preventing covid spread. Not vaccines. Not masks. Not ventilation. Not social distancing. Not testing.
“It’s not wise public health to promote one of them as the magic solution. Action must be communicated as a toolbox that everyone has access to.”
Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and former SAGE member:
(On London being on course to see one in three NHS staff absent due to covid by the New Year)
“This is sobering for the NHS. If transmission remains this high, it will affect all sectors, all services, all roles with people infected, many well, some isolating, some symptomatic, some will be ill and need hospital care. The impact may go well beyond the NHS.”
Hannah Davis, Researcher, Speaker on Algorithmic Creativity and Machine Learning:
“Omicron is a huge individual threat. A 15-30% chance of being disabled for at least a year, but likely for the rest of your life, is a bigger threat than most of us ever faced ever before the pandemic.”
Professor Christina Pagel, Director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit, member of Independent Sage:
“Let’s talk about London where Omicron is now the large majority of cases. It’s the fastest-growing region by far in terms of cases, positivity rates and hospital admissions. Many boroughs are showing insane recent growth.
“Hospital admissions by primary diagnosis show increase in both admissions for Covid and more incidental admissions (e.g. trauma or caught covid while in hospital for something else). This is consistent with no evidence that Omicron is milder. Critical care is already very busy.
“Cases are going up fastest in the 20-29-year-olds but all age groups in London are going up – even school-age kids where cases had been dropping towards the end of term.
“London is the least vaccinated, least boosted region of England with a large difference by deprivation, especially in the over 50s. This means vulnerable populations will be massively exposed to, and at risk from, Omicron. What are we doing to address this?
“So overall things are not looking great.
“Independent SAGE suggests having a mini circuit break until Christmas eve to stop as many people as possible from getting infected next week – this will save lives, protect the NHS, and allow limited mixing over Christmas.
“And this must come with government support for affected businesses – they are already suffering greatly from voluntary cancellations (and I think need support regardless).”
Professor James Naismith, Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute:
“Parliament has effectively decided to rely on hope by not imposing restrictions early. If that hope is wrong, we will know around Christmas Day, when – most likely – it will be too late to stop fairly significant adverse consequences in addition to disruption. It would also suggest that, as the Peter Cooke joke runs, we have learned from our mistakes … in order to repeat them.”
“Omicron is now making its presence felt in the number of cases, unfortunately this is just the start. Professor Whitty simply states the truth, numbers are going to get much bigger very quickly.
“Triple vaccination provides very strong protection against infection and thus viral spread. Boosters take around one to two weeks to give their effect. Speed is thus important.
“Previous infection alone confers very little immunity to infection with Omicron. This was seen in South Africa. First time infection with covid19 will kill a certain number of unvaccinated people, over 145,000 dead Britons prove this beyond doubt. Many more are suffering from long covid19. In our world of vaccines, there is no wider benefit in their deaths or suffering, just an awful heart breaking tragedy. Quite simply, infection with covid19 is all pain for no gain with the added risk of death or life changing complication. Vaccination is free, safe, effective, does not force you to isolate and has much much lower risk than infection.
“The bad news is that Omicron can infect many more people per day in the UK than Delta has been able to. This on its own will cause disruption as Professor Whitty said.
“If Omicron is four times less likely to cause severe disease than Delta due to population immunity (quite a big drop), then Omicron would have to cause four times the numbers infections as Delta to see the same number of severe illnesses. At the current UK doubling rate for Omicron, over seven days the number of Omicron infections per day will increase by 8 fold. An 8 fold would double the number of daily hospitalisations even if four times “milder”.
“Due the lag between infection, testing and hospitalisation, it won’t be until after Christmas until we have a robust measure of these ratios. This will provide an opportunity for a lively fact free prediction market on the outcome. I would note that only some of the so called lockdown sceptics have acknowledged that had their views prevailed last year, the death toll would have been much higher.
“If people reduce contact, isolate if infected (testing with lateral flow), improve indoor ventilation, wear masks properly and keep their distance the virus will spread more slowly. This will give you or your loved one, more time to get the booster and benefit from it. If we don’t, then we are left only with a hope; the hope that Omicron will cause many fewer severe cases per thousand infections than Delta.”
Dr Stephen Griffin, Virologist at the University of Leeds, guest member of Independent SAGE:
“This is a repetition of past failings, and all the more frustrating and upsetting as potential mitigations could now be intrinsically linked to the vaccination programme. Boosters, necessary because of high prevalence and the antibody-evasive nature of Omicron, are mercifully being rolled out quickly now, but not fast enough if we allow Omicron the same freedom as we gifted Delta during 2021.”
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, Statistical Genetics, Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London:
“I really thought that perhaps omicron would wake people up to the fact that ‘living with’ this virus isn’t really going to be possible – unless we accept mass death and suffering, and develop an understanding that we need globally coordinated progressive suppression.
“But for many people, including scientists, omicron has actually strengthened the idea of ‘living with it’ and dropping all mitigations. This is an extremely privileged take, and it completely ignores that the impacts of such policy would be devastating on the most disadvantaged.
“So unless you are willing to spell out the consequences of your plans clearly and honestly (mass death, especially among the poor, disabled, vulnerable, elderly, ethnic minorities), and own that, this is what you are advocating for society to accept. Please, don’t recommend it.
“And those who are suggesting this is a pipe dream – it is – in a self-fulfilling way because of the fatalism of those who never even tried. So many countries did, and protected lives, and livelihoods. Was it hard, and did they have to make sacrifices? Yes. But was it worth it? Yes!”
Chris Hopson, CEO of NHS Providers:
“London NHS pressure is mounting rapidly. Hospitalised covid patients up 30% in week vs national 4%. At 1,534 yesterday (vs 8k in the January 2021 peak). Covid linked staff absences up 140% from 1,900 on Sunday to 4,700 on Thursday. Some trusts now having to postpone non essential activity.
“Trusts are beyond full stretch doing three things at once, each of which is a massive task by itself. They cope with the huge pressure in non-covid care (e.g. urgent care and care backlogs). They exponentially expand booster vaccination campaign, at top speed, working with local government partners. And get ready for rapid onset of potentially large numbers of new omicron hospitalised covid patients with very large numbers of staff on omicron related sick absence. Trust leaders are, as always, doing all they can to provide the best possible care in a very pressured context.
“It is important to understand it is not just hospital trusts that are beyond full stretch. The same applies to community, mental health and ambulance trusts too. For example, the London Ambulance Service is taking around 2,500 more calls a day than it usually does alongside significant staff absences.
“Trust leaders tell us the vast majority of hospitalised covid patients in London are not vaccinated, which they find frustrating. Especially since it prevents their trusts from providing the best possible care to all those who need it, covid and non-covid patients alike.
“The public in London can help by getting vaccinated as fast as possible. Despite the NHS and local government best efforts, the vaccination rates in London are worryingly much lower than in the rest of England.”
— AUTHORS —
▫ PMP News reporting.
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- Text: This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 19 December 2021.
- Cover: Adobe Stock/alphaspirit. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)