The emergence of the Omicron variant shows that the world is “closer to the start of the pandemic than to the end,” warned one of Britain’s top scientific figures, lamenting a lack of political leadership on Covid.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust who stepped down as science adviser to the government last month, said progress in tackling Covid-19 since its emergence was ‘wasted’.
Write in the Observer, he declared that the rich countries had taken “a very indiscriminate internal concentration, letting themselves go into thinking that the worst of the pandemic was behind us”. He said he cautiously hopes the current vaccines will protect against serious diseases from Omicron, which may not be true for future variants.
“The more this virus continues to spread in largely unvaccinated populations around the world, the more likely it is that a variant that can overcome our vaccines and treatments will emerge,” he writes. “If that happens, we could be close to square one.
“This political drift and lack of leadership prolongs the pandemic for everyone, with governments unwilling to tackle inequitable access to vaccines, tests and treatments. There were wonderful speeches, warm words, but not the actions needed to ensure equitable access to what we know works and would end the pandemic. He said the urgent action needed had not changed – “wearing masks indoors, increasing testing, social distancing, seclusion for positive results (with support for doing so) and vaccination will all help reduce transmission and protect against disease ”.
Farrar’s intervention came as a major charity raised concerns about the government’s recall campaign, which it sees as the current best method of tackling the virus. Caroline Abrahams, director of charity at Age UK, said the program was “downright messy”. She said: “It’s nowhere near where it should be, and hearing this week that up to one in five nursing home residents haven’t had their boosters yet was just alarming. “
She spoke out after the suspension of certain targets for general practitioners to allow them to focus on the administration of jabs. Routine check-ups for those over 75 and for new patients may be postponed under the new directive.
“Against this backdrop, we agree that the top priority now is to supercharge the booster program, to ensure that as many elderly and vulnerable people as possible get their injections, and quickly,” Abrahams said. “In the end, this situation is yet another demonstration of our GP system being underpowered. Unless and until we invest more in it, we will continue to see these difficult choices arise every time a crisis strikes, and it is certainly not in the best interests of anyone, let alone that of the elderly.
On Saturday Downing Street announced it was introducing pre-departure testing for people traveling to the UK. From Tuesday, they will have to pass a lateral flow test or PCR 48 hours before entering the country. Officials said the move came as evidence emerged that the Omicron strain has been reported in more than 40 countries, with community transmission apparent in places like Norway. They also said that the incubation period was proven to be shorter than for other variants.
Labor had pushed for the introduction of the tests. A source from Downing Street said new evidence on the spread of the variant and its characteristics motivated the decision. This will cause further frustration for the travel industry, which has been hit hard by the Covid restrictions. Nigeria will also be added to the government’s red list of countries on Monday.
The sudden spread of Omicron has dismayed many scientists. “What really surprised me is the rapidity of the increase in the number of reported cases in South Africa,” said Professor François Balloux of University College London. “The cases are doubling at a rate that I have never seen before. It is very disturbing. “
Early estimates suggest that this increase is due to the fact that the Omicron variant can infect between three and six times as many people as Delta, during the same period. This is an alarming figure that was offset by early reports which suggested that the variant is, at present, less likely to lead to hospitalization.
However, scientists warned last week that one should be careful with such data. “It’s already a tense situation. Even though Omicron is less likely to cause serious illness, it can still cause more hospitalizations and put more strain on health services, as many more people will be infected, ”said Professor Rowland Kao, of the University of Edinburgh.
Other fears relate to the elderly. Scientists point out that Omicron has circulated in younger age groups, but fear that as it spreads it could shift its profile to infect older and more vulnerable people.
The situation is now in a critical balance, say the scientists. The health service was already threatened by the increase in Delta cases and the prospect of a serious epidemic of seasonal flu. “Omicron has changed the game so much that we just don’t know how it’s going to end,” Kao added.
There is also evidence that more than one in four UK workers (27%) would show up at work with symptoms of the Omicron variant because they needed the money, including 23% of those whose work exposes them. at an increased risk of infection. Additionally, 16% of workers say they could work from home, but are not allowed to do so by their employer, according to a survey by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). Only 31% say they would get support from their employer beyond statutory sick pay.
“To ensure economic recovery, workers must be economically secure,” said Anthony Painter, head of research and impact at RSA. “In the short term we need to see a system of ‘automatic leave’ and more generous sick pay, but in the long term Tories and Labor need to explain how they are going to deal with the deep economic insecurity that Covid has just expose. “