Since the first cases of Omicron were reported in the UK just over a month ago it has spread rapidly across the UK, fuelling a surge of infections. But scientists have also been working at speed. Here is an overview of the expanding scientific knowledge of the variant.
Here’s a bit more context on those latest case numbers in the UK:
The number of confirmed Covid cases in the UK continued to rise on the last day of 2021, with 189,846 reported in the previous 24 hours, while the number of people in hospital and the number of deaths also rose.
The figures follow two consecutive days when the number of new cases was above 180,000, with a record 189,213 reported on Thursday and 183,037 on Wednesday – although the latter included a backlog in some nations of cases recorded before and during the Christmas period.
Friday’s figures reported 203 people having died within 28 days of a positive Covid test. Thursday’s data had 332 recorded deaths, a steep rise from 57 on Wednesday, explained in part by NHS England not reporting hospital deaths since 24 December.
The number of Covid patients in hospital in England increased to 12,395 on Friday, from 11,452 the day before.
Experts say the daily case figures do not include reinfections and not everyone who is infected has symptoms and takes a test, suggesting the true number of infections is likely to be higher.
According to a new estimate on Friday from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), one in 25 people in England had Covid before Christmas, including one in 15 in London.
Based on swabs collected from randomly selected households in England, the ONS said an estimated 4% of the community had Covid in the week ending 23 December – equating to about 2,024,700 people. The week before, about one in 35 people were estimated to be infected.
Local authorities in England are drawing up contingency plans to deal with staff shortages being made worse by Covid that could leave them unable to empty bins or provide other council services.
The Local Government Association said:
As cases of Covid-19 rise in light of the Omicron variant, councils are concerned that existing staffing issues may get worse, potentially impacting on service delivery in some areas and they are putting in place contingency plans to address this.
We want to work with government to address these issues to ensure councils can be resilient in supporting their communities through this wave of the Omicron variant and that they can continue to deliver the services people rely upon.
Ireland has become the latest EU country to cut the isolation period for many people who contract Covid, as record infection numbers spark fears of crippling staff shortages in essential public services, as well as retail and hospitality venues.
Spain, Portugal and Greece reduced isolation times this week while others, such as Germany and France, are considering doing so and Italy cut its quarantine for fully vaccinated people who come into contact with someone who has tested positive.
The moves follow a similar decision by the US and reflect early research suggesting the highly transmissible Omicron variant fuelling the pandemic’s latest surge generally causes milder illness than earlier versions of the virus.
However, the sheer number of people becoming infected – and thus having to self-isolate if they contract the virus, or quarantine if they are a contact of someone who tests positive – threatens to cause chaos in hospitals and on public transport.
“Many Omicron cases are going to be asymptomatic,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Monday after halving the recommended isolation time for asymptomatic people to five from 10 days.
We want to make sure there is a mechanism by which we can safely continue to keep society functioning, while following the science.
The UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on Wednesday cut the 10-day self-isolation period for vaccinated and unvaccinated people in England who have tested positive for coronavirus from 10 days to seven if they get the all-clear from lateral flow tests.
The World Health Organization has described the decisions to cut isolation and quarantine periods as part of a delicate balancing act between controlling the transmission of the virus and keeping national economies up and running.
“It is a trade-off between the science and being absolutely perfect in what you try to do, but then having the minimal disruption you can possibly have,” Michael Ryan, the WHO emergencies director, said. “Governments are struggling to find that balance.”
Read the full story here: EU countries cut Covid isolation periods in Omicron balancing act