A Christmas Cracker of Covid Cheer? Perchance it is a dream…

Covid cases have been soaring across the UK and England just a few days ago been plummeting towards another lockdown or circuit breaker. We seemed destined to have a cracking Christmas followed by a New Year’s Eve singing Auld Lang Syne at a social distanced.

Yesterday, though, there was better news. Separate analyses published by Imperial College and Edinburgh University concurred with research funded by the South African Medical Research Council and a modelling exercise by a Danish institute. All four studies suggest Omicron will lead to less severe illness than Delta and less hospitalisation.

The results, which are provisional, look like a bonus for the NHS which is usually rammed to the rafters in winter and this year faces bigger than usual staff shortages due to self-isolation.

The studies are a huge boost for Boris Johnson, who’s premiership has been on the line over Covid restrictions (along with the loss of the North Shropshire by-election). He must make a decision in the next few days whether to follow Scotland and Wales in increasing restrictions, including cancelling New Year. His instinct will be to impose minimalist intervention rather than face letters of no confidence from his backbenchers.

But unless we “Jab the World” we are at risk of more waves of infection.

Covid-19 cases are soaring across much of the UK, especially in London. Yesterday, we began to receive the first estimates of the severity of Omicron. A study published by Imperial College estimates suggest people catching Omicron are, compared to Delta, 15% less likely to attend hospital and 40% less likely to be hospitalised for a night or more. It is not possible at this early stage to judge the impact of Omicron on admissions to ICU or on death rates. A South African study, also published yesterday, suggested there are reduced risks of hospitalisation and severe disease in people infected with Omicron than Delta. A smaller Scottish study posited that Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk hospitalisation when compared to Delta. Danish modelling also points to Omicron not being as severe as Delta due partly to prior infection or immunisation. The level of community and individual protection is a factor in reducing the severity of disease in all the studies.

From what we know so far, this a cracker of a Christmas present. But it doesn’t yet put us into a safety zone. Omicron is more transmissible and is spreading faster than Delta. It also has a degree of vaccine escape. Data suggests that 15% of people who have had three jabs could still catch Omicron.

There are dangers with good news. Some areas of the UK have very low levels of vaccination. Around 11 million eligible people in England have not received a dose of vaccine. In London, where Covid rates have shot up at extraordinary rate, just 62% of those aged 12 or over have had two doses of vaccine compared to 82% in the UK. Just a third of those in London have had three doses (35%), compared to 54% across the UK. There have been anti-vax and anti-lockdown protests across the world, including in London.

On 19 December, more than 8,900 NHS hospital staff in London were on sick leave or in self-isolation, up by nearly a quarter since the beginning of the month – 43% of absences were Covid related. Better news is that 8% of Adult General and Acute Beds in London were unoccupied on the same date. Across England, just 1% of beds were free.

While we might feel that we can relax a little after the latest news, we are far from getting to the other side of this pandemic.

We must also look at the broader picture and the months and years ahead. There is some suggestion from scientists that the evolution of the virus and growing immunity to Covid-19 may mean that another significant variant of concern is unlikely to emerge.  The lack of vaccination in poorer countries potentially will create populations where new variants could emerge. I agree absolutely with Gordon Brown when he says the failure to distribute vaccines to poorer countries is a “stain on our global soul”. Rich countries are allowing huge numbers of people in poorer countries with limited access to health care to go unvaccinated. This must be tackled urgently.

The best Christmas present we can give to the world is vaccine. It is perhaps time for Bob Geldof to remake his Christmas song. Coronavirus doesn’t know it Christmas at all. We still need to “Feed the World” but we must also “Jab the World”.

Note the different vertical scale for this graph


The bar charts use a 7-day rolling average shown in red. Data for the last 5 days, the grey bars, show provisional data. The red line is usually a good indicator of trend.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.