Coronavirus latest as UK Omicron cases jump to 336; “early signs” new variant could start “outcompeting” Delta within weeks, expert says; daily COVID cases come in at 51,459, with 41 deaths; Poland and Norway are latest European countries ramping up restrictions.
We’ll be bringing you more coronavirus news and updates again tomorrow.
Until then, here’s a reminder of today’s top stories…
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is already causing up to 1,000 infections a day in the UK, many more than official figures would suggest, a leading scientist has told Sky News.
Professor Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said the outbreak was now well under way, doubling every three to four days, adding it will quickly put the NHS under pressure, writes our science correspondent Thomas Moore.
“Omicron is transmitting quite well in the UK,” he said. “The number of cases is going up quite fast, maybe doubling every three to four days.
“It’s something like 1% (of daily cases) already, let’s say 500 to 1,000 infections.”
“Not all infections turn into cases,” Prof Balloux added.
“It’s not a precise figure but probably not far from the truth.”
The UK Health Security Agency has said there are currently 336 confirmed cases in the country in total.
Professor Balloux’s estimate is based on the proportion of total cases caused by Omicron over the last week and some projections.
As the weather gets colder, an expert has said people should do their lateral flow tests before leaving the house.
Epidemiologist Michael Mina said the tests should be done somewhere that is warmer than 55F (12C), and if the countertop where they are left is cold then they should be placed on top of a warmer surface.
“Using the test in the cold can cause false negatives Bc the reagents may not bind virus well or show a line,” he tweeted.
Helen Lewis, a writer at The Atlantic, has shared her personal experience of catching coronavirus and said she didn’t have the classic symptoms.
She shared an article about epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector, who was encouraging people not to go into work if they have cold symptoms.
“Just echoing this from Tim Spector. I developed a bog-standard cold – sneezing and tired. (No fever, cough or loss of smell.) Took a test. Guess what? It’s Covid. Confirmed with a PCR result today,” she wrote on Twitter.
None of the 336 people infected with Omicron in the UK have been admitted to hospital so far, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said.
Asked about the matter in the Commons, Mr Javid said: “The number of confirmed cases in the UK is 336 – they are all by definition infected.
“Some may be asymptomatic, others will be feeling ill. None of them, so far, as far as I am aware, have been hospitalised.”
Some experts have suggested the new variant may be milder than previous versions of the illness, but there’s some important caveats.
For example, many of the cases so far have been linked to travel – and people who are younger and healthier are more likely to go abroad.
Plus, hospital admissions lag behind cases so it will take longer for hospital admissions to appear in data.
Still, the news that no-one has been admitted to hospital is welcome and a potentially encouraging sign.
The threat of the Omicron variant has prompted the government to boost testing capacity, the health secretary has confirmed.
“I believe that UKHSA (Health Security Agency) are carrying out some half a million tests, approximately, a day,” Sajid Javid told the Commons.
“In light of the Omicron variant and some of the concerns around that, the need for greater testing, that testing capacity is being increased.”
The new variant is thought to be able to spread rapidly, and is behind a surge in cases in South Africa.
Professor Tim Underwood, who works at University Hospital Southampton, has shared the heartwrenching story of an oesophageal cancer patient who missed out on their surgery today.
The surgeon said his hospital is “overwhelmed with sick people and we don’t have enough staff”, warning the picture is “repeated across the UK”.
It is unclear if the beds are being taken up by COVID patients, but the pandemic has generally put pressure on health systems particularly during the winter.
The country has announced a host of new measures in response to rising infections and the spread of the Omicron variant.
Nightclubs will close from Friday for the next four weeks – although businesses will be compensated – French Prime Minister Jean Castex said.
People are also recommended to work from home two to three times per week “where possible”, while schools will have to impose mandatory mask-wearing in some instances.
Meanwhile, vaccines will be made available to children aged five to 11 who have a health condition or are overweight.
The country has now identified 25 Omicron cases, of which 21 were linked to travel from southern Africa.
Independent SAGE member Professor Christina Pagel has commented on today’s daily coronavirus cases, which topped 50,000.
She said the figures are “very high for a Monday” – referring to the usually lower numbers over the weekend – a potentially worrying sign for the week ahead.
Newly appointed shadow health secretary Wes Streeting brings up the controversial Christmas party held in Downing Street on 18 December last year.
Reports of the party have been causing a stir as it was held while London was under Tier 3 restrictions, and the day before Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas celebrations for many.
“Isn’t it time the government comes clean about the event in Downing Street on the same day, admit they broke the rules and apologise?” Mr Streeting says.
In response, Health Secretary Sajid Javid says: “In terms of rules, they should apply to everyone regardless of who they are.”