UK health bosses have reportedly been handed early real-world data on the Omicron coronavirus variant, with the results set to be published before Christmas.
According to Politico, the government has been made aware of both the positive and negative news regarding the new strain, which has been studied by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
The agency is reported to have concluded that Omicron looks like it causes milder symptoms than Delta for most people in the UK, with people less likely to become severely ill as a result.
However, the increased transmissibility of Omicron means many people may still become severely ill due to the sheer scale of people catching it.
As a result, any of the reduced severity could, according to Politico, in effect be “cancelled out”.
Vaccinations and people previously infected are also thought to have played a part in reducing the severity of the disease.
The findings seem to back up early signals from South Africa – where the strain was first identified – that Omicron produces less severe symptoms in people who catch it.
The report comes amid growing concerns that high transmissibility will result in large numbers of NHS staff out of work while they isolate, further adding to a strain on the health service.
In an attempt to combat this, the self-isolation period for fully vaccinated people in England who have coronavirus has been cut to a week from 10 days – if they receive negative lateral flow results on day six and day seven of their self-isolation period.
Health minister Gillian Keegan said changes to when people can leave isolation based on testing “will relieve some of the pressure” on staffing in health and social care settings.
Watch: Omicron needs to be tackled or NHS won't cope, says expert
Keegan said data on the severity of Omicron is “one of the missing pieces” ministers are waiting for.
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about Politico’s report of the UKHSA findings, she said: “Well, that’s one of the missing pieces of data that we’ve been waiting for. We ask for it every day.
“I’m looking forward to receiving it. But we haven’t received that officially yet.”
She added that there is “a lot of uncertainty in the data”.
The UKHSA said it is still conducting analysis on Omicron and data will be published later this week.
A spokesman said: “We are reviewing all analyses continuously to help inform the pandemic response, which includes assessing the severity of Omicron.
“We will publish these latest findings in the variant technical briefing on December 23.”
While the wider impact remains unconfirmed, some experts have warned the public to be highly cautious.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the global charitable foundation Wellcome, has described transmission of the Omicron variant as “eye-wateringly high”.
Farrar said he believed “we’re in the most difficult, most uncertain time, perhaps of the whole pandemic, certainly since March of 2020”.
Elsewhere, Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), said the previous rapid increase in cases appears to be slowing and, if that is true, there is no need for a lockdown.
During last week’s Downing Street press conference, England’s chef medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned that Omicron was “moving at an absolutely phenomenal pace” and it will only be a short time until we get to “very large numbers”, adding he thought the variant was a “very serious threat”.
Whitty added that “all the things that we do know (about Omicron) are bad”.
He warned a “significant increase in hospitalisations” is coming from Omicron, with Boris Johnson telling ministers to expect a “huge spike” in infections.
Health secretary Sajid Javid also told MPs there was a “very real risk” that the exponential rise of Omicron cases could translate into a rise in hospital admissions that “threatens to overwhelm the NHS”.
But The i reports that more restrictions in England after Christmas could be avoided if hospital admissions in London stay below 400 a day by the end of this week.
It comes as the prime minister ruled out any new restrictions coming into place before Christmas – while not ruling out any more coming in the run up to the new year.
According to The Sun, a circuit breaker two-week lockdown from Boxing Day could be announced in the next 48 hours – which could see indoor service banned in pubs and restaurants, while indoor mixing between households would also be forbidden.
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