Scientists have reacted with dismay to Boris Johnson’s decision not to impose fresh restrictions to curb the spread of Omicron, emphasising that waiting until the new year would “almost certainly be too late to have a material impact on the epidemic”.
Because the rate of growth in infection rates may already have plateaued or fallen by then, it may also be too late to know what impact those restrictions would have had if they had been introduced earlier. “We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” said Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia.
The prime minister announced after a cabinet meeting that he would not be introducing any further Covid restrictions for now, adding: “The situation is extremely difficult and the arguments either way are very, very finely balanced.”
Data on the hospitalisation rate for those infected with the Omicron variant would be kept under “constant review”, he said, with government sources hinting that further restrictions were likely after Christmas, possibly starting a week tomorrow.
Yet, with Omicron infections currently doubling within 48 hours in most regions of the UK, the country may already have reached a ceiling where the rate of growth begins to fall and case numbers plateau.
Hunter believes that point could come within days, with or without interventions. “If we implement control measures now, they are unlikely to be sufficient to reverse the growth, only slow it,” he said. “But there may still be benefits in slowing the peak, in terms of flattening the curve.”
One solution that appears to be on the table is a return to the “step 2” measures introduced as part of the roadmap out of lockdown earlier this year – chiefly, people only being allowed to socialise indoors with members of their household or a support bubble, and outdoor socialising being limited to groups of six people or two households, including at pubs and restaurants.
Prof Christina Pagel, the director of UCL’s clinical operational research unit, said: “Waiting for definitive evidence that it could cause the NHS to be overwhelmed will be too late to avert the crisis. Instead, the government should follow Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] advice and return to step 2 of the roadmap immediately to prevent thousands of infections over the coming days and then monitor the situation hour by hour so that measures can be lifted as quickly as possible, hopefully even in time to enable limited household mixing over Christmas weekend.”
Other scientists took issue with the prime minister’s claim that the scientific arguments for further restrictions were “finely balanced”. Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health services at the University of Oxford, said: “Mr Johnson claims that getting booster vaccinations ‘could not be more urgent’ but refuses to apply the same standards of urgency to the full range of preventive measures needed. There are strong scientific arguments for people to immediately cease the activities that are known to cause transmission of this exceptionally contagious variant.”
Large indoor gatherings of unmasked people should be cancelled, and well-fitting, high-filtration masks should be worn at all times indoors, especially in crowded settings, such as on public transport, she said.
Yet other scientists highlighted the negative impact on people’s mental wellbeing of continued uncertainty around coronavirus restrictions. Dr Charley Baker, an associate professor of mental health at the University of Nottingham, said: “Clear statements are required that set out exactly what paths are under consideration and which parameters need to be met for each path. Delay, prevarication and constant rumour leaves us all very much struggling as we try to prepare for the onslaught of the difficult days ahead.”