THE next three weeks will be crucial in the fight against the “new kid on the block” – the Omicron variant, experts say.
As scientists rally to understand the deeply worrying strain in the festive period, efforts are being ramped up to stall its spread in the UK.
Brits are being told while boffins investigate Omicron, we must get our boosters as soon as eligible in order to “save Christmas” from dreaded restrictions.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam told a press briefing today there was "no time to delay", but there was no need to "panic".
He expected it would be around three weeks before more information is known – around December 20 – when new Covid restrictions would be reviewed by Boris Johnson.
While announcing that boosters would extend to all over 18s, Prof Van-Tam said: “It's always been the case that at some point, we’ll get a variant that gives us heightened concern.
“We are at that moment with Omicron. It is the new kid on the block for now.
“I think it's true to say scientists around the world, not just in the UK, unfortunately agree this one is of increased concern.
“But in acknowledging that concern, I want to be very clear, and to emphasise the very high degree of uncertainty in our knowledge.
“There are far more things we don't know yet, than we do know.
🔵 Read our Omicron variant live blog for the latest news
“That will change rapidly as scientists mobilise on this over what I predict the next three weeks. But everyone needs to give us time to assemble that data.”
He said at this stage, it appears Omicron is behind an explosion of cases in South Africa. But it’s not clear – although there are no signals – it causes more severe disease.
On how well vaccines will work against Omicron, Prof Van-Tam said: “I want to be clear it's not all ‘doom and gloom’ at this stage, and I do not want people to panic at this stage.
“If vaccine effectiveness is reduced, as seems pretty likely to some extent, the biggest effects are likely to be in preventing infection and hopefully smaller effects in preventing severe disease.
“But we need to work that out.”
Prof Van-Tam was flanked by the chief of the JCVI, the expert panel which today made recommendations for tackling the variant with vaccines.
These included to extend boosters to 18 to 39-year-olds, inviting them three months after their second dose had passed.
Prof Van-Tam said: “The JCVI has today announced new urgency and further expansion of the booster programme.
“We don't know what will happen next. As I said, the next three weeks will be of scientific uncertainty.
“But while we wait for the mist to clear, about what this variant actually means, there is no time to delay and it is our opportunity to get ahead.
“Vaccine boosting is the thing we can do most easily while we wait for that scientific mist to clear.”
Minutes later, in the House of Commons, the Heath Secretary Sajid Javid welcomed the advice from the JCVI to get boosters to every adult in the UK.
He also said the “strategy was to buy time and strengthen defences while scientists learn more”.
After three weeks, he said ministers would reconsider the measures that have been put in place – namely mandatory face masks in shops and on public transport.
But he said measures would not be kept “a day longer than necessary” if it turned out Omicron was no more dangerous than Delta.
Experts have previously said it appears Omicron has already overthrown Delta in some areas in barely two weeks.
That’s despite the fact that Delta is considered the “fittest” version of the coronavirus to date.
A total of 11 cases of Omicron have been officially reported by the UK.
But experts say it is likely to be closer to 200 and cases will almost certainly increase in the coming days.
Cath Noakes, professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings, University of Leeds, said: “Vaccination is the most important mitigation measure as it can reduce the transmission of the virus and it has a very significant effect on reducing the likelihood of severe illness.
“Even with good vaccination coverage, we still need other precautions to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.
“The easiest ways to reduce the chance of infection are to use a face covering in busy settings, socially distance, make sure a space is well ventilated – so the air changes frequently – and ensure that people wash or sanitise their hands frequently.”
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