Experts say Omicron variant is ‘best thing’ for pandemic

Omicron ‘should be welcomed’ because the ultra-infectious variant could consign the days of Britain recording thousands of Covid deaths each day to history, according to experts who say mortality rates had already dipped 20-fold before the strain had really took off. 

Despite cases skyrocketing to pandemic highs of over 200,000 because of the super-mutant strain — which has driven out deadlier rival variants — fatalities have stayed flat at around 110 since early December.

MailOnline analysis shows the UK’s case fatality rate — the proportion of confirmed infections that end in death — was dropping even before the variant took off. And intensive care admissions have yet to spiral, despite soaring hospital admissions.

Just 0.15 per cent of cases led to a death towards the end of December, compared to highs of over three per cent during the darkest days of last year’s second wave when the Alpha variant was in full motion and the NHS had yet to embark on its vaccination drive. 

Government advisers warned soaring case numbers this winter would lead to an inevitable surge in hospital admissions and deaths of up to 6,000 per day, even with immunity provided by boosters.

But a host of studies have since claimed the variant, which was only detected in Britain in November but made up 90 per cent of all cases before Christmas, is intrinsically less severe than its predecessors because it replicates in the upper airways rather than the lungs — where it would do more damage. 

Professor David Livermore, a medical microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline the strain’s emergence could be the best thing to have happened for the pandemic, echoing comments made by health experts in Denmark earlier this week.

He said: ‘With the spread of Omicron over the past three weeks, recorded cases have gone from around 50,000 per day to around 200,000. This has not fed through into an increased death rate — and a rise would have been expected by now, if it was going to happen.

‘The divergence between case and death rates agrees perfectly with Omicron being highly transmissible but less lethal than earlier variants — exactly as asserted by doctors in South Africa who discovered it.

‘It tallies also with studies from Hong Kong and Cambridge showing that Omicron is less able to infect lung cells and more likely to stay in the upper airways, were it does less serious harm.

‘In all these respects, Omicron is far preferable to the more dangerous variants that proceeded it and its take over should be welcomed.’

Official data shows the number of people dying has barely changed across the UK over the last month, with fatalities dropping in the week up to December 31. Graph shows: Covid deaths by death date in the UK. More up to date death data by date reported is biased by reporting issues over the bank holiday weekends

The number of daily positive Covid tests recorded in England has exceeded 100,000 for nearly two weeks. However, the number of patients in hospital with the virus is a fraction of the level seen last winter, while deaths remain flat


24 NHS trusts declare critical incidents but Grant Shapps insists it’s ‘not unusual’ for hospitals to suffer winter crises 

Twenty-four NHS trusts have now declared ‘critical incidents’ amid staffing shortages and rising Covid admissions — but ministers have downplayed the warnings saying it is not unusual for hospitals to face winter crises.

Grant Shapps said that 24 out of England’s 137 trusts — or 17.5 per cent of the entire health service — had signalled they may not be able to deliver critical care in the coming weeks.

But the Transport Secretary poured cold water over the alerts, telling Sky News: ‘It’s not entirely unusual for hospitals to go critical over the winter with things like the flu pandemic.’

The full list of trusts has not been made public, however those which have raised the alarm include North East Ambulance Service, Dorset County Hospital and Great Western Hospitals.

Trusts declaring critical incidents can ask staff on leave or on rest days to return to wards, and raising the alarm enables them to receive help from nearby hospitals.

It comes as MPs warned the patient waiting list has hit 6million in England alone, and could double in three years without further action due to pressure on the health service.

But Boris Johnson said yesterday that life could be back to normal by February, after cases rose by just six per cent in a week yesterday. The UK recorded 194,747 daily cases, compared to 183,037 last Wednesday.

The Prime Minister has held his nerve in the face of the spiralling Omicron wave — unlike his counterparts in Scotland and Wales — and imposed no new curbs over the holidays, winning him praise from Tory MPs.

On another day of coronavirus chaos:

MailOnline’s analysis suggests the Covid fatality rate fell to as low as 0.14 per cent on December 28 — its lowest ever total — after dropping every day since November 18.

The rate is calculated by comparing average death numbers to average case numbers from two weeks earlier, which is roughly the amount of time it takes for the disease to take hold, experts say. 

It means the case-fatality rate — which is different to the infection-fatality rate, which will be even lower because not everyone who has the virus gets tested — was already dropping before the strain kicked off in Britain in mid December, suggesting vaccines have played a huge role in thwarting the virus.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline the Covid fatality rate has been falling in recent weeks in the UK but some of this ‘is probably down to delayed reporting of deaths over Christmas’.

He said the ‘fatality rate for Omicron does seem to be lower than we have seen with previous variants and is probably now below 0.2 per cent’.

But the figure is also skewed slightly by increased levels of testing, with the number of swabs being carried out every having shot by around 245 per cent over the past year. Testing in Britain reached its highest ever level in the week leading up to Christmas this year, before peaking on January 4 at more than 2million.

And data shows cases were predominantly occurring in people aged under-50, who have always been less at risk of dying from the virus. Rates are now only going up in over-60s in London, signalling what may be to come fore the res of the country.

Experts say the trend is set to reverse next week, with infections slowing in the vulnerable age group and expected to fall. 

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data also shows the number of people who died on New Year’s Eve — the latest date fatalities by death date is available for — fell to 103.

Death numbers remained below 140 throughout December, having been closer to 200 at points in November and October. 

More up-to-date death figures by date reported is marred by data issues over the bank holiday weekends. Britain yesterday logged 334 fatalities within 28 days of a positive test, up 486 per cent on the previous week’s reported total. 

Latest figures show that hospitals in England have actually had fewer beds occupied this winter than they did pre-Covid. An average of 89,097 general and acute beds were open each day in the week to December 26, of which 77,901 were occupied. But the NHS was looking after more hospital patients in the week to December 26 in 2019, 2018 and 2017

While Covid hospitalisations are rising quickly in England, they are still half of the level of last January and far fewer patients are needing ventilation


At least 5,000 Covid ‘patients’ in England are NOT primarily in hospital for virus, data suggests 

As many as 5,000 Covid patients in hospital in England may have been admitted for other ailments, NHS figures suggest as the super-mild Omicron variant continues to engulf the country.

Latest data shows  so-called ‘incidental’ cases — those who test positive after admission for something else, such as a broken leg — made up a third of coronavirus inpatient numbers on December 28.

At that point, there were just 8,300 Covid sufferers being treated in England’s hospitals, 2,750 of which were not primarily receiving care for the virus (33 per cent). 

More up-to-date statistics from the Government’s Covid dashboard show that, as of Wednesday, there were 15,600 beds occupied by people infected with the virus. 

It is not clear exactly how many of the current patients are there primarily for Covid because the NHS’s breakdown is backdated and only covers up to December 28. But, if incidental cases still account for a third of cases, it means at least 5,000 who are being counted as coronavirus patients are not suffering seriously with the disease.

Experts say there is reason to believe the share of incidentals will continue to rise as Omicron pushes England’s infection rates to record numbers, with one in 15 people estimated to have had Covid on New Year’s Eve.

In South Africa — ground zero of the Omicron outbreak — up to 60 per cent of Covid patients were not admitted primarily for the virus at the height of the crisis there. 

Separate analysis of NHS data shows 45 per cent of beds newly occupied by Covid patients in the final week of December were patients not primarily ill with the virus. 

It comes as two dozen NHS trusts declared ‘critical incidents’ amid staggering staffing shortages caused by sky-high infection rates, indicating that they may be unable to provide vital care in the coming weeks. 

One in ten workers are off and 183,000 Brits are being sent into isolation every day on average, prompting calls for the isolation period to be cut to five days.

And Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures — which distinguish deaths caused by Covid from those where the virus was merely incidental — shows fatalities dropped for the sixth week in a row in the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. 

Just 501 people were killed by the coronavirus — the fewest since August, according to the surveillance report.

Professor Livermore told MailOnline the Omicron variant could be beneficial because its increased transmissibility has helped wipe out more lethal variants, including Delta, and could help prevent future ones from emerging.

He said: ‘Because it is so transmissible, and because the vaccines — targeting the spike protein of the Wuhan variant — give only “mismatched” and brief protection against Omicron, most of us are going to catch it over the next few weeks and months.

‘It’ll then act as a natural vaccine or booster. And that, I believe — rather than through human efforts — is how the pandemic will end. It’s how respiratory pandemics ended in the past. 

‘Afterwards we’ll all of us live in equilibrium with five common cold coronaviruses, not four, as previously.’

His comments echoed those made by Tyra Grove Krause — the chief epidemiologist at Denmark’s State Serum Institute — who said a study from the organisation found that the risk of hospitalisation from Omicron is half that seen with the Delta variant.

This, she said, has given Danish authorities hope that the Covid pandemic in Denmark could be over in two months.

‘I think we will have that in the next two months, and then I hope the infection will start to subside and we get our normal lives back,’ she said on Danish TV 2.

Despite early fears that Omicron could prolong the pandemic due to its increased level of infection, Dr Krause said it actually could spell the end of curbs.

And Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline descriptions from others of the ultra-infectious variant being a ‘natural vaccine’ were right.

He said that while any Covid variant boosts immunity the fact Omicron was highly transmissible yet milder worked to help boost population immunity.

‘Whatever version you were infected with your immunity would be boosted,’ he said. ‘That mild bit suits us because it means we can get immunity without, or with much less, risk.’

However, he warned against any ‘chickenpox’ style parties where people intentionally try to catch Omicron, saying we needed to protect people who could get severely ill from the virus. 

‘You have to be careful here not to stretch it to things such as chickenpox parties because there will always be a vulnerable minority and to encourage infection puts them at risk,’ he said. 

Hopes of Omicron ushering in the end of the pandemic stage of Covid were sparked by a South African study into Covid death rates in the nation’s Omicron wave. It showed fatalities were just a quarter of levels seen during other surges. 

Researchers examined records of 450 patients hospitalised in the City of Tshwane, in the ‘ground zero province of Gauteng, since the extremely-transmissible variant took off in the country. Their survival rates were compared to nearly 4,000 patients hospitalised earlier on in the pandemic. 

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show Covid cases in Omicron hotspot London are now only going up in people aged 60 and above. Graph shows: The case rate per 100,000 in people aged 60 and above (yellow line) and under-60 (red line). Cases have started to drop in under-60s, though the rate still remains above the more vulnerable older age groups

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show confirmed infections have fallen week-on-week on seven of the eight days leading up to December 30 – the latest date regional data is available for – in people aged 59 or below. Graph shows: The week-on-week rate of growth in average cases in under-60s (red line) and people aged 60 and above (yellow line). Cases are falling in under-60s and the rate of growth is slowing in over-60s

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated a record 3.27million people in England were infected on any given day in the week to December 31, up more than 60 per cent on the previous week


Data justifying move to cut self-isolation period to five days was evident last summer 

Ministers have sat on evidence justifying slashing self-isolation to just five days since last summer, according to critics who have demanded Boris Johnson drops the crippling rules that are paralysing the nation. 

Rail services and bin collections have ground to a halt with up to 1.3million Britons currently under house arrest, while the workforce crisis has left NHS bosses asking heart attack patients to make their own way to hospital. 

But the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal thinktank, said data published in August last year suggested it was safe to halve the quarantine period, which at the time stood at 10 days.

Oxford University research found 98 per cent of transmission occurs within the first five days of symptoms, and prompted experts on the topic to say the isolation period ‘could be much shorter’. 

Virologists said today that they agreed with the findings, with the vast majority of spread happening in the days before and after someone starts feeling ill.

And James Lawson, a fellow at the ASI, told MailOnline: ‘The research shows we can safely reduce the isolation period.  

‘Governments say they want to follow the science, yet are ignoring the changes in circumstances and much of the data we’ve had since last summer.’ 

Just 4.5 per cent of patients hospitalised with Covid in the last month died from the virus. For comparison, the rate stood at around 21.3 per cent earlier in the pandemic  

Scientists from South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the University of Pretoria, who carried out the research, said it shows ‘a decoupling of cases, hospitalisations and deaths compared to previous waves’. 

Omicron could be a ‘harbinger of the end’ of the darkest days of the pandemic and could usher in the virus’s endemic phase, the team wrote in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Despite death numbers remaining unaffected by the current wave of cases across Britain, 24 hospital trusts have declared critical incidents because of staffing shortages and rising Covid admissions. 

The full list of trusts has not been made public but they include North East Ambulance Service, Dorset County Hospital and Great Western Hospitals.

Trusts declaring critical incidents can ask staff on leave or on rest days to return to wards, and raising the alarm enables them to receive help from nearby hospitals.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that 24 out of England’s 137 trusts — or 17.5 per cent of the entire health service — had signalled they may not be able to deliver critical care in the coming weeks.

But he poured cold water over the alerts, telling Sky News: ‘It’s not entirely unusual for hospitals to go critical over the winter with things like the flu pandemic.’

NHS hospitals are currently facing severe pressures from a staffing crisis fuelled by Covid, with one in ten medics now thought to be off sick, and an increase in Covid hospitalisations.

And GPs are now also short-staffed, with the head of the Royal College of GPs Professor Martin Marshall warning a ‘growing number’ of clinicians and other staff members are isolating because of the virus. 

He warned of the ‘pressure’ GPs were under, and said patients with ‘minor self-limiting problems’ should try to treat themselves where possible using online resources, or visiting pharmacies. 

Some medics are calling for self-isolation to be slashed to five days in line with France and the US as long as it is backed up by the science, to help get staff back on to wards faster.

But Government scientists have warned against the move saying it would be ‘counter-productive’ because it risked sending infectious employees back onto wards. 

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