Government officials and science advisers believe the danger posed by the Omicron variant may not be clear until January, potentially allowing weeks of intense mixing while the variant spreads.
All over Westminster, Christmas aperitif invitations are landing in embossed envelopes or on WhatsApp groups. Department staff parties are set to take place, as well as a reception for reporters with Rishi Sunak at # 11. Even Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves are having a joint party.
However, minutes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggest that there is deep concern about the threat of the new variant, especially its transmissibility. Although one is wary of overreacting, a government science adviser has said Downing Street is “putting all its eggs in one basket” by focusing its efforts on the booster vaccination campaign.
“There should be a balance between social mix and immunity. This will affect how quickly it spreads, ”the adviser said. “At the moment, we are not doing anything to reduce the mix. It’s disruptive and it’s damaging to the economy, but at the very least we could encourage people to think about their contacts.
Some senior Sage scientists have argued privately that the extra precaution of working from home should be taken as Christmas approaches, and the government should start suggesting people take smart steps to minimize social contact the days before. to see their loved ones. .
“Working from home is much less intrusive as an intervention. If you can easily do your work from home until Christmas, that seems like a very proportionate thing to do now, ”said a Sage advisor.
“We can wait until next year to see an exponential increase and then bring in Plan B. And then it doesn’t work and we end up having to do more intense things. It is undoubtedly a very difficult judgment.
So far, this advice has not been followed and ministers who suggested that people exercise their personal judgment on attending the Christmas party have been slapped by No.10.
After Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey advised caution in the face of “smooching” under the mistletoe, Health Secretary Sajid Javid stepped in on Thursday to insist that “it’s okay. to do with the government you embrace ”.
Government sources have also strongly denied that there was any consideration of a short ‘circuit break’ lockout to allow more mixing over Christmas. “It is totally wrong to suggest that this has been considered,” a spokesperson said.
However, a senior health source said that while the heavy mixing often occurs as Christmas approaches, people would be expected to taper this off during Christmas itself. “The Christmas holidays can act as a form of cutout – people stay home in small groups, kids don’t go to school after a period of intense mixing. It will help, ”the source said.
Another scientist from Sage said it would be difficult to argue for a crackdown on social contact in the first few weeks, as the numbers would appear absurdly low compared to the daily infection rates Britons expect.
“The first part of the curve looks flat, then it suddenly takes off and the exponential nature becomes more evident. I don’t think we will reach this point before Christmas. We will reach it in the first quarter of next year.
Ministers acknowledge that the current figures for Omicron in the UK may be more than two weeks old and grossly underestimate the reality.
“We are talking about big underestimates. Sequencing is still a week or more late. We’re looking at the numbers we had a week or two ago and that’s an underestimate of that, ”one official said.
The rapid response restrictions, which include additional measures for self-isolation of contacts as well as the wearing of masks, will be reviewed in three weeks. Some scientists said data from South Africa would be clearer by then, but the implications for the UK would still be highly uncertain.
“If we see the exponential increase in cases and hospitalizations remain stable, that would be positive, but the population [in South Africa] is much younger; much of the early circulation is the young adult population. It’s not necessarily completely reassuring if you haven’t seen this increase, ”a government scientist said.
“At the end of the day, the only thing that really tells us is real world data. It would take us a month, even with our very good data, to fully understand what is really going on. Unfortunately, we get this detail once it gets widespread.
Number 10 believes actions last week showed recognition of where ministers need to act quickly, without overreacting when evidence of the threat is still unknown.
“Due to the uncertainty, we have acted quickly and decisively but also in a proportionate manner,” said a senior adviser. “There was a broad recognition of the importance of working at speed. This was confirmed by the fact that we identified our first confirmed case very soon after the announcement of the first border measures.
“Our whole approach has been to act quickly to buy time and then put it to good use to better understand this variant while strengthening our defenses against the potential threat. That’s why we put the booster program on steroids.
Despite widespread support for Extra Border Precautions and the wearing of extra masks, there is little public pressure on Johnson to go any further.
Most adults in England are unwilling to revert to full lockdown rules, according to the latest YouGov poll, which found 68% against closing pubs and 56% against returning a limited number of rallies .
However, the polls have not moved much since the roadmap ended in July, suggesting the public is optimistic or jaded about the new threat.
Emerging information from South Africa could start to change public opinion. A Sage adviser called South Africa’s latest findings “extraordinary,” with new cases appearing to have doubled in 24 hours and the variant re-infecting people at a rate three times the previous strains.
“If you have a much more transmissible strain, chances are you have a big wave of infections, and even if the death rate is the same then you will see a big increase in hospitalizations and deaths,” said a government science adviser. .
“Even 10-20% reductions in the effectiveness of vaccines against serious illnesses could lead to very significant problems. “