Chris Whitty has warned against describing the Omicron variant as “mild”, adding there should be “really serious caution” over reports that a reduction in hospitalisations was being seen in cases of the variant in South Africa.
In a Downing Street press conference marked by straight-talking from England’s chief medical officer, Whitty suggested the danger posed by the variant risked being under-estimated as the UK recorded a record number of daily Covid cases. The expert said “all the things that we do know (about Omicron) are bad”.
He added the UK is now dealing with “two epidemics” – Omicron and Delta – and records will continue to be broken in the coming weeks as cases double every two days.
On the data coming out of South Africa, Whitty said: “The first caution on this is simply a numerical one – if the rate of hospitalisation were to halve but you’re doubling every two days, in two days you’re back to where you were before you actually had the hospitalisation.
“If the peak of this is twice as great, then halving of the size of the hospitalisation rate, you still end up in the same place. And this peak is going very fast.”
He added: “The second point I wanted to make, which I’m not sure it’s fully been absorbed by everybody, is that the amount of immunity in South Africa for this wave – because of a prior Delta wave and vaccination – is far higher than it was for their last wave. And therefore the fact that there is a lower hospitalisation rate is unsurprising.”
Whitty added: “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some degree of slightly milder disease, that is possible. But I just think there’s a danger people have over-interpreted this to say, this is not a problem and what are we worrying about?
“I want to be clear, I’m afraid this is going to be a problem. Exact proportions of it, of course, South African scientists and UK scientists and scientists globally are trying to determine at the moment.”
On Wednesday, the UK has recorded the highest number of daily Covid cases since the pandemic began.
A further 78,610 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases have been recorded in the country as of 9am on Wednesday, the government said.
But Whitty said: “I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up.”
He said Delta appears to be still flat while Omicron is growing.
He continued: “What we’ve got is two epidemics on top of one another – an existing Delta epidemic, roughly flat, and a very rapidly-growing Omicron epidemic on top of it.”
He said there was a difference between the numbers of people who were admitted to hospital with coronavirus by vaccination status – underlining the need for booster jabs. Whitty said it showed the vaccines provided “massive amounts of protection against Delta”.
But he warned: “What we’re expecting to happen with Omicron is that some of that difference is going to be eroded, because it is less well … the vaccines are less well matched to the Omicron variant.
“This is what the laboratory data are implying, we don’t have clear clinical data yet.”
He added: “Therefore, the point of the booster is to try and get people back to as good as a position in terms of replicating this really good protection after they’ve had their booster dose.”