UK aims for ‘Jabby New Year’ with boosters as COVID cases remain high

The surge in cases continues to be driven by the Omicron variant but it does not show a similarly sharp rise in hospital admissions, taking into account the lag between infections and hospital treatment

Gary Davison receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at SSE Arena which opened this morning and will operate as a mega regional vaccination centre in Belfast, Northern Ireland March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

The head of UK’s COVID vaccination programme said the National Health Service (NHS) is contacting thousands more people from Wednesday urging them to book a booster vaccine and have a “Jabby New Year” as the country recorded another 129,471 coronavirus cases.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters during a visit to a vaccination centre in London on Wednesday that the Omicron variant continues to cause problems but all signs indicate that it is milder than the previously dominant Delta variant of COVID-19.

He highlighted that estimates show that around 2.4 million eligible double-vaccinated people are yet to take their boosters and urged them to come forward to mark the New Year in a “sensible way”.

“The Omicron variant continues to cause real problems. You are seeing cases rising in hospitals. But it is obviously milder than the Delta variant and we are able to proceed in the way that we are,” said Johnson.

“I’m sorry to say this but the overwhelming majority of people who are currently ending up in intensive care in our hospitals are people who are not boosted,” said Johnson.

“I’ve talked to doctors who say the numbers are running up to 90 per cent of people in intensive care, who are not boosted. If you’re not vaccinated, you’re eight times more likely to get into hospital altogether. So it’s a great thing to do. It’s very, very important. Get boosted for yourself, and enjoy New Year sensibly and cautiously,” he added.

The surge in cases in the UK continues to be driven by the Omicron variant but it does not show a similarly sharp rise in hospital admissions, taking into account the lag between infections and hospital treatment. However, Tuesday’s COVID infections data only includes data from England and Wales over the Christmas holiday period, with a UK-wide picture covering Scotland and Northern Ireland expected only in early January 2022.

“The NHS Covid vaccination programme continues to break records with almost 250,000 people jabbed on Monday, the second-highest number for a Bank Holiday so far,” said Dr Emily Lawson, head of the NHS Covid Vaccination Programme.

“We are contacting hundreds of thousands of people this week urging them to ensure they have maximum protection in the face of the threat from Omicron. Experts are clear that two doses does not give the protection we need from the new strain so everyone eligible should get boosted now and enjoy a Jabby New Year,” she said.

The NHS said there are more than a million appointments available through its national booking system between now and January 1, 2022. With boosters being offered to all adults, around 650,000 text messages and 50,000 letters are being sent to people who have not yet had their top-up third dose – applicable any time after a three-month gap from the second dose of a COVID vaccine.

It has also emerged that not all patients in hospital will have been admitted for COVID, with latest official data suggesting about three in 10 have the virus but were admitted to hospital for something else.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which covers staffing at NHS trusts, said some trust bosses thought self-isolating staff would be a “bigger problem” than the number of people being treated for COVID.

A number of scientists are now calling for the UK to follow in the footsteps of the US and reduce the country’s COVID self-isolation period to five days, in an effort to protect frontline services struggling with staff absences.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday that Americans who catch COVID and don’t have any symptoms only need to self-isolate for five days, so long as masks are worn for another five.

In England, those who have tested positive for COVID are able to leave self-isolation after seven days, as long they can produce two negative lateral flow tests.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the BBC that he believes Omicron has become “effectively just another cause of the common cold”.

“We’re going to have to let people who are positive go about their normal lives as they would do with any other cold,” said Hunter.
“I think the whole issue of how long are we going to be able to allow people to self-isolate if they’re positive is going to have to be discussed fairly soon, because I think this is a disease that’s not going away,” he said.

Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of medicine at Oxford University, added that a negative test is a “better way to measure if we’re allowing people to go back into community” instead of isolation periods.

But a UK government spokesperson said the current stipulated isolation period – which was recently lowered from 10 to seven days – remained “critical for limiting the spread of the virus”.

“There are no further changes to the isolation period planned at this time, but we keep all rules under review based on the latest health data,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, pharmacists have warned of patchy supplies of the rapid antigen lateral flow COVID tests, boxes of which are available free of cost via a booking code to be used to self-test at home.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said that the delivery capacity for lateral flow testing kits has doubled to 900,000 a day since December 18, due to unprecedented demand.

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