The emergence of Omicron could be the “first ray of light” towards living with Covid as an endemic disease, according to a government scientific adviser.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) and a University of Warwick professor, said Omicron could be an indicator that in the future there may be a less severe variant that is similar to the common cold. But as Covid cases continued to rise in the UK and hospitalisations at their highest in almost a year, he said “we’re not quite there yet”.
“The thing that might happen in the future is you may see the emergence of a new variant that is less severe, and ultimately, in the long term, what happens is Covid becomes endemic and you have a less severe version. It’s very similar to the common cold that we’ve lived with for many years,” he told Times Radio on Saturday.
“We’re not quite there yet, but possibly Omicron is the first ray of light there that suggests that may happen in the longer term. It is, of course, much more transmissible than Delta was, which is concerning, but much less severe.”
He added: “Hopefully, as we move more towards the spring and we see the back of Omicron, we can get more inter-relationships of living with Covid as an endemic disease and protecting the vulnerable. Any variant that does emerge which is less severe, ultimately, in the longer term, is where we want to be.”
A total of 18,454 people were in hospital with coronavirus on 6 January, according to government figures. This marks a 40% week-on-week rise and the highest number since 18 February.
Middlesbrough, Copeland and Redcar and Cleveland had among the UK’s highest week-on-week rises in Covid cases, while in London they were thought to be slowing down.
Tildesley said rises in hospital admissions in the north-east, north-west and the Midlands were “concerning” and that most parts of the country were approximately two to three weeks behind London.
“On the slightly more positive side, so it doesn’t sound all doom and gloom, what we are seeing from hospital admissions is that stays in hospital do appear to be on average shorter, which is good news, symptoms appear to be a little bit milder, so this is what we are seeing consistently with the Omicron variant,” he added.
According to NHS England data, 39,142 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England were absent due to Covid on 2 January – a 59% rise on the previous week and more than triple the number at the beginning of December.
The Health Service Journal estimated that staff absences across the whole of the NHS for all reasons, including Covid, could be as high as 120,000. Around 9,300 armed forces are available on standby.
Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised against giving a second booster, or a fourth dose, of the vaccine to care home residents and people aged 80-plus after figures showed it was 90% effective at preventing hospital admission.
Instead, experts want to prioritise the rollout of the first booster dose and encourage those who are still unvaccinated to have first and second doses.
To date, more than 51 million people have had a first dose and over 47 million have had a second dose. More than 35 million have had a booster or third dose.