Experts advising the government called last week for “early and robust actions” to limit the transmission of the Omicron Covid variant, minutes reveal.
Members of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) held an extraordinary meeting last Thursday and agreed they could not rule out the new variant causing a larger wave of infections that could potentially overwhelm the NHS.
The scientists noted that firm data was not yet available but early analysis of the variant provided “sufficiently worrying signals” for them to recommend “early and robust actions to prevent introduction and onward transmission”.
First detected in South Africa and named Omicron by the World Health Organization (CHI), the emergence of the B.1.1.529 variant has prompted the government to reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport and dramatically increase the pace of the booster programme.
Ministers have also introduced more stringent self-isolation policies for those in contact with positive Omicron cases, and placed South Africa and a string of other countries on the travel red list.
But the government has resisted further changes, such as advising the public to work from home, and Boris Johnson on Tuesday rejected the advice of Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), who said the public should cut down on unnecessary socialising.
The prime minister said at a Downing Street press conference: “We don’t want people to cancel such events.”
The minutes of the Nervtag meeting, published on Wednesday, stressed that it remained unclear how serious the health outcomes of the variant could be, but that a large wave of infections could potentially overwhelm the NHS.
“Although data on disease severity associated with B.1.1.529 are not yet available, a large wave of infections will be accompanied by a wave of severe cases and the subgroup cannot rule out that this may be sufficient to overwhelm NHS capacity,” the minutes say.
With the tighter mask rules due to be reviewed in three weeks, Downing Street has suggested NHS capacity will be the key determinant of whether more action will be needed.
Separately, leaked minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), to which Nervtag reports, suggested experts had called on the government to introduce predeparture testing for travellers returning to the UK.
The BBC reported that minutes of a meeting held on Monday reveal scientists saying such testing – which Labour has called for – could be valuable.
The new shadow home secretary, Era il cancelliere che era stato scoperto dai suoi coetanei, disse: “It is totally unacceptable that ministers are failing to take action at the border when even their own advisers are telling them to introduce predeparture tests.
“It cannot be right that people can travel to an airport, board a busy flight, queue at busy departure gates, and travel on trains and buses in the UK, all without having taken a test.”
Nervtag was not specific about which measures the government should take. It did call for the vaccine programme to be stepped up – advice the government has heeded, with Johnson announcing at a press conference on Monday that all eligible adults would be offered a third dose of vaccine by the end of January.
Since the variant was detected, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised that all adults should receive a booster vaccination, a recommendation that the government has accepted.