UK health security agency estimates number of infections to be 20 times higher than confirmed cases
Omicron cases could exceed 1 million by the end of this month on the current trajectory, Sajid Javid has told MPs, describing the new variant as “an even more formidable foe”.
In a statement delivered to the House of Commons, the health secretary said that there were 568 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant but that the estimated current number is “probably closer to 10,000”.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, he said: “The UK health security agency (UKHSA) estimates that the number of infections is approximately 20 times higher than the number of confirmed cases, and so the current number of infections is probably closer to 10,000.
“UKHSA also estimate that at the current observed doubling rate of between two and a half and three days, by the end of this month, infections could exceed 1 million.”
Javid said there was now confidence that Omicron is “far more transmissible” than Delta, but he said there was still a lot to learn about the new variant. He said Delta cases had doubled in around seven days, and that Omicron was spreading at an even faster rate.
“Based on the latest data from here and around the world, our latest analysis is that it’s been around, it’s between 2.5 and three days.”
The statement followed scientific advice to ministers on Tuesday that provided a stark outline of the potential consequences of failing to take action to suppress the spread of the virus.
In a consensus statement on Tuesday, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling advisory committee predicted: “If initial estimates of transmission advantage and immune escape from South Africa are applicable to the UK population, there is the potential for a very substantial peak of infections much larger than occurred during the winter wave of January 2021.”
Even if the severity were half that of Delta, this could be outweighed by the sheer number of infections, the scientists said.
Assuming Omicron has some transmission advantage and some degree of immune escape – the scenario judged to be most probable – the scientists said it was highly likely that “very stringent measures” would be required to control growth and keep R below 1.
The government’s Sage advisory committee said Omicron was on a steep upward trajectory in the UK, with probably thousands of daily infections already occurring. At this rate, Omicron is projected to become the dominant variant within a few weeks.
Without any changes to existing measures, the number of hospitalisations from Omicron could reach 1,000 per day or higher in England by the end of the year, with a peak likely to be higher than 1,000 to 2,000 Omicron hospital admissions per day.
“For it to be below this level, there would need to be only a small degree of immune escape and very high protection from boosters against Omicron,” the minutes said.
The Sage advice, released on Wednesday, also suggested additional infection control measures should be considered in hospitals, care homes and prisons to help prevent the spread of the highly transmissible variant.