Scots were urged to take the greatest care in the days before Christmas yesterday amid rising alarm over the spread of Omicron.
People were encouraged to carefully consider social activity as scientists and public health officials voiced concern cases linked to the new variant will crush the NHS within weeks despite a nationwide drive to deliver booster jags.
The Prime Minister was said to be looking at contingency plans for a two-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown in January while the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned hospitalisations could hit new highs in two weeks even if transmission is reduced now.
The committee called for further restrictions and warned acceleration of the booster programme will not be enough to bring down hospital admissions in coming weeks. There were calls yesterday to postpone mass gatherings like today’s League Cup Final at Hampden.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has said she cannot order closure of venues until the Treasury offers financial support to compensate businesses, is expected to join a four-nations meeting of the Cobra emergency committee this weekend.
In London, which is ahead of the rest of the UK in infection levels, mayor Sadiq Khan declared a major incident yesterday amid a surge in cases and rising hospital admissions.
Professor Eleanor Riley, an immunologist at the University of Edinburgh, warned hospitals in Scotland will also be under increasing pressure from Omicron in the coming days.
She said: “The problem is even a small drop in vaccine efficacy against severe disease can have a very big impact on the number of people ending up in hospital.
“Say the vaccines are 95% protective against hospitalisation in Delta but only 90% protective with Omicron, that’s now 10% of people at risk, double the proportion of people who might be at risk compared to Delta. That’s now twice as many people ending up in hospital.
“That’s why the numbers are scary because small drops in efficacy translates into an awful lot of people who are now at risk. That’s why public health people are so worried.”
Riley said any evidence from South Africa that Omicron was milder was based on a population of people who had been hit by several waves of previous variants.
She said: “It doesn’t mean the virus itself is intrinsically less damaging. It could be that the resilience of the population is higher. That’s what we’re still trying to tease out.
“We will get the data eventually from the UK but we’ve got to wait until people get sick.”
Public health expert Professor Linda Bauld, who advises the Scottish Government, said it was possible some form of lockdown would be needed to protect the NHS.
She said: “There is still a lot of uncertainty about what the disease severity from this variant will be but the numbers are rising so whether the current measures will be enough, I think we’ll need to monitor it day by day and week by week.
“My own hope is they are enough and you don’t have to take more severe action to limit people mixing. That would involve closing things again. The reason why it would happen is because we’re already over 90% capacity in some Scottish hospitals and tipping them over the edge would cause other harms.
“But, as the first minister has said, the financial support that would be needed from the UK Government isn’t there at the moment.”
A preliminary study by the NHS and the UK Health Security Agency has shown vaccine protection against hospitalisation from Omicron dropped to between 80% and 86% after a booster.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a UK Government adviser on Covid who led the study, said: “We think Omicron is doubling in case numbers every three days or so at the moment and that will become more apparent across the entire country in the coming week.
“The thing we’re most anxiously looking at and analysing is what is happening to hospitalisation numbers because that is really the key indicator in terms of how well we are coping with this epidemic. It is a real concern we’ll be heading into something which has a risk of overwhelming the health service.”
The NHS is already under pressure in Scotland with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) announcing it would impose strict limits on the number of visitors to hospitals from tomorrow.
Jennifer Rodgers, deputy nurse director at NHSGGC, said: “This has been a difficult decision, but it is essential to help keep our patients, families and staff safe.”
On Friday, the first minister announced Omicron was now the dominant strain of the virus after warning “a tsunami” of cases was beginning to hit Scotland.
Dr Lewis Morrison, chair of BMA Scotland, said the NHS was facing a double whammy of winter pressures and the latest coronavirus variant. “For this to coincide with the usual pressures, which are generally due to people being sick, they’re not the routine work, at this time of year it’s a bit of a double whammy,” he said. “People are really tired now.”
Opposition politicians have said large football matches, including today’s League Cup Final, should not go ahead. Fifty thousand fans are expected at Hampden today while a similar number were at Ibrox yesterday when Rangers played Dundee United.
Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “Football matches are postponed all the time due to waterlogged pitches or heavy fog.
“Shifting a match date to a few weeks from now, when we’ve got to grips with Omicron, won’t break the bank for the Scottish Government. By allowing tens of thousands of fans to gather in stadiums, the SNP are sending a cruel and mixed message to every parent who can’t attend their child’s nativity this year while hospital ITU staff will be looking on in horror as these state-sanctioned super-spreader events are allowed to proceed.”
Sue Webber, Scottish Conservative Shadow Minister for Public Health, said: “Getting fully vaccinated and boosted, along with regular testing is going to be crucial to reduce the spread of the new variant. I would urge all those planning to attend this weekend’s football to do so safely, with this in mind.”
National clinical director Jason Leitch said everyone attending today’s cup final should take a test but he stopped short of saying football matches should be postponed.
“It’s not so much inside (stadiums) that particularly worries us,” he said. “It’s the travel to and from, it’s the pubs.
“It’s all of the stuff around sport, whether it’s a hockey game, a football game, a rugby game. It’s all of the peripheral stuff that brings people together in an environment where this virus, I’m afraid, enjoys transmission advantage. We have to be awfully careful.”
Every time you plan to meet up with other households, travel to see people, or visit busy places, remember to do a lateral flow test before you go.
Thank you for playing your part and living safely this winter.
— SPFL (@spfl) December 18, 2021
He also said there was no plan to ask clubs to play matches behind closed doors. “There isn’t a secret plan,” he said. “There isn’t a drawer with an a la carte menu on it that the first minister’s going to announce immediately.
“We talk every single day about what the data is doing, what we’re seeing internationally, what the protections might need to be going forward, complicated of course by the fact we’ve got Christmas a week today. We’re not immune to what that might mean.”
Nicola Sturgeon said on Friday: “My advice to people right now, and I can’t be clearer about this, is please limit your social interactions as much as you can right now.
“I’m asking people in the run-up to Christmas to stay at home as much as they can. Had we the financial support mechanisms in place that were in place earlier in the pandemic I would be more able to give straightforward advice to events to say don’t have these events go ahead right now. I can’t do that when I can’t compensate people.”
The UK Government is under increasing pressure to introduce further restrictions in England. The Financial Times reported that Boris Johnson was presented with a number of options on Friday under a so-called Plan C.
The UK Government said all measures were under review as it learned more about Omicron.
The Scottish Government said availability of financial support from the Treasury was an issue when restrictions such as closing venues were being considered. It said: “The football authorities have a range of mitigation measures in place to make matches as safe as possible, including Covid certification, aimed at reducing the risk of transmission at these events.
“However, while Omicron is circulating, our social interactions cannot be risk-free and we would encourage everybody to think carefully and use their judgment on whether they are comfortable with taking this risk.
“Additionally, we would ask all fans to test before they leave home and also consider ensuring their travel is as Covid-safe as possible, further reducing such risk.”
The UK reported more than 90,000 new Covid cases yesterday while in Scotland just less than 6,000 were recorded. However, Public Health Scotland said that number was likely to be higher due to delays in reporting results because labs are processing a high volume of tests.
A further nine deaths were recorded yesterday and the number of people in hospital stood at 494, with 34 of those in intensive care.
A total of 4,369,398 people have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine while 3,988,961 have received their second dose and 2,436,952 have received a third dose or booster.
Professor: Shut down now or risk a huge surge of infections
The most effective way to stop the spread of Omicron would be to lock down before Christmas, a leading Government adviser has said.
Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at St Andrews University and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was clear that Plan B measures alone would not be enough to stop the spiralling numbers of cases.
He said the time to act was before Christmas not after as reports claimed officials have been drawing up draft plans for a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown after the festive season.
Reicher told Times Radio: “The only way really, or at least the most effective way, we can have an immediate effect is to decrease the number of contacts we have.
“In many ways, the most effective way of diminishing contact is to have a circuit-breaker.
“Now, you could have it after Christmas, the problem is after Christmas it’s probably too late, it’s probably by then we will have had a huge surge of infections with all the impact upon society.
“When people say ‘look, we don’t want to close down’, of course, we don’t want to close down. But the problem is at the moment, things are closing down anyway, because of the spread of infection.
“So I think we need to act now.”
The Financial Times reported that Boris Johnson was presented with a number of options on Friday under a so-called Plan C, ranging from “mild guidance to nudge people, right through to lockdown”.
The newspaper quoted allies of the prime minister who claimed Johnson still wanted to go down the guidance route but that he also had to be realistic about the threat of Omicron.
Leaked minutes from Sage, seen by the BBC, said scientists had told ministers that tougher measures needed to be brought in “very soon”.
The BBC reported the advisers had recommended moving to restrictions seen in step one and two of the easing of lockdown restrictions in the spring. This included a ban on indoor mixing and indoor hospitality.
They reportedly warned against delaying further interventions until 2022.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation said the Omicron variant had been identified in 89 countries as of Thursday and had a doubling time of between 1.5
and three days.
It said data is still limited on the severity of the strain, but added: “Given rapidly increasing case counts, it is possible that many healthcare systems may become quickly overwhelmed.”
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