Sajid Javid confirmed that there are approximately 10 people in hospital in England with Omicron at the moment on Monday morning, adding that there have been no reported deaths from the new Covid strain in the UK so far.
The health secretary was explaining why the prime minister moved the deadline for all adults in the UK to receive a booster vaccine from the end of January to the end of December on Sky News.
Referring to the “tidal wave” of Omicron cases which Boris Johnson believes is coming to the UK, Javid also unpacked why the low hospitalisations and the current death rate from the new strain does not mean we should relax.
He said: “If you remember when Covid first came to our shores, it arrived in January 2020, but we didn’t have our first death until March.
“There’s always a lag. Even in South Africa, where this variant started earlier, there’s been a huge number of hospitalisations.”
He said he was not sure how ill those in hospital in the UK are, adding that “about 10 people in England are confirmed with Omicron”, and that “at this moment in time I cannot confirm a death”.
Sky News’ Kay Burley then argued that evidence from South Africa showed the strain triggered only mild symptoms – suggesting the government had overreacted in its new measures and vaccine programmes, as Omicron might not cause severe disease.
“No one knows for sure at this point,” Javid replied. “It’s very difficult to compare what’s happening in South Africa to what might happen here, for instance difference ages in the population, different levels in the type of immunity people have.”
He added he was not aware of anyone dying from Omicron in South Africa yet.
Javid said that the variant’s the growth rate was the main issue, and Omicron has already swept across the UK in just a matter of weeks.
He told BBC Breakfast: “First you see the wave of infections, and obviously that makes some people symptomatic and ill, and some of those go on to become severely ill, and those are ones who enter hospital and then sadly die.
“Even if this turns out to be milder than the Delta variant, which we don’t know how severe it is but let’s assume for a second that it’s milder, it will still lead to a high number of hospitalisations – it might be a smaller percentage of people who are severely ill but it will be a smaller percentage of a much larger number.”
When pressed if the steps he’s taking are “out of step” with the risk currently posed by Omicron, Javid explained it was “much better to act early”.
There are fears Omicron could soon become the dominant strain.
Approximately 40% of all Covid infections in London are thought to be Omicron, and there are around 3,000 confirmed cases of the new strain in the UK, according to the health secretary.