Idea that Omicron is milder is a myth, warns Chris Whitty – despite low hospitalisations

OMICRON is not necessarily milder than previous strains of the virus as data from South Africa suggest, England’s top doctor has warned.

Prof Chris Whitty attempted to dispel the myth that people will not be hospitalised with Omicron at tonight’s Downing Street briefing.

The chief medical officer for England said he wanted to put a “serious caution” on what appeared to be positive data that had emerged from South Africa.

The nation said hospitalisation with Omicron is 29 per cent lower compared to the other variants.

And just three per cent of patients hospitalised recently with Covid have died, versus about 20 per cent in the country's earlier outbreaks.

Prof Whitty sternly warned tonight the data has been “overinterpreted”.

He said: "The amount of immunity in South Africa for this wave, because of a prior Delta wave and vaccination, is far higher than it was for their last wave, and therefore the fact there is a lower hospitalisation rate is unsurprising.”

South Africa has had fewer vaccinations than the UK. However, natural immunity has "substantially increased" after the Beta variant swept the nation.

Therefore, Prof Whitty said a drop in hospitalisation “is to be expected” – and not necessarily because Omicron is milder. 

Prof Whitty said: “If you think about what happened to us in the UK, with our Alpha wave in January and February of this year, the hospitalisation rate of people over 65 was about 22 per cent prior to vaccination.

“Once you have a lot of immunity due to primarily vaccination and then some natural infection, the hospitalisation rate in the same age group has dropped to six per cent.

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“That's just because there is more immunity.

“Milder disease is possible – but there is a danger or misinterpretation to say this isn't a problem and what are we worrying about.

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“I want to be clear, this is going to be a problem…”

Prof Whitty also said that even if the hospitalisation rate of Omicron was half that of others, its faster spread will cancel out any benefits.

He said: “If the rate of hospitalisation were to half, but you’re doubling [infections] every two days, in two days you're back to where you were…

"If the peak of this is twice as great, then halving of the hospitalisation rate, you still end up in the same place, and this peak is going very fast."

He later said: "I am afraid there will be an increasing number of Omicron patients going into the NHS, going into hospital, going into intensive care and exact ratios we do not know but that will begin to become apparent in my view, fairly soon after Christmas."

However, it's not to say that vaccines – particularly the booster shots – will not hold back thousands of hospitalisations that otherwise would have occurred.

The amount of immunity in South Africa for this wave is far higher than it was for their last wave… the fact there is a lower hospitalisation rate is unsurprising

Boris Johnson once more banged the drum for the booster drive and praised volunteers like those signing up to The Sun's Jabs Army.

Showing a graph of the rate of hospitalisation between unvaccinated and vaccinated people, Prof Whitty said some of that difference will be “eroded” due to the vaccines being slightly less effective against Omicron than they were for Delta.


It comes as the highest daily cases were reported today than ever in the pandemic – 78,610, compared to  68,053 on January 8, 2021.

In the past seven days alone, 404,869 people have tested positive for Covid, up 19.1 per cent on the week prior. 

With millions of people grappling for Covid tests, causing shortages across the UK, capacity for deliveries via Royal Mail have been ramped up.

From Saturday, 900,000 tests will be delivered a day, double the figure before, as Omicron is set to explode.

The pace of the outbreak is moving at a speed never seen before, experts say.

Professor Tim Spector, who helped found the Covid Zoe app, said Covid cases in London are accelerating more than was seen during the very first wave of the virus.

Already 60 per cent of cases in London are made up of Omicron, while the figure is 35 per cent across England.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said 4,671 more Omicron cases had been confirmed, up 90 per cent from 633 on Tuesday.

But the figure was higher partly because the definition of an Omicron case had changed, the agency said.

The total Omicron cases in the UK stands at 10,017.

UKHSA chief Dr Jenny Harries said Omicron is “probably the most significant threat” since the start of the pandemic 

She said today she expects numbers to be “quite staggering” moving forward, as Christmas looms.

Experts thought Omicron would double in numbers every four to five days, but it is under two in some areas, Dr Harries said.

Although cases are as high as the January peak, hospitalisations and deaths are nowhere near the same level due to vaccinations.

But experts today could not rule out that admissions could reach at least half that level, at 2,000 per day.

Prof Graham Medley, a member of the Government’s scientific advisory panel Sage, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We could see numbers of people being admitted to hospital getting very large and certainly going over the 1,000, maybe up to 2,000 a day, that we’ve managed to keep the Delta variant below.”

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