SAGE calls for WFH and vaccine passports in face of Omicron wave


No10’s scientists have called for the introduction of vaccine passports and work-from-home guidance to counter the spread of the super-mutant Omicron Covid variant, advice published today shows.

Documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and subgroup Nervtag warned the highly evolved strain could cause a surge in cases ‘similar or even larger’ than previous waves.

The expert panel admitted that the jury is still out on whether the variant will cause more or less severe illness, with conflicting reports coming out of the epicentre in South Africa, where doctors insist most cases are mild but hospital admissions seem to be rising.

In the minutes from SAGE’s 97th meeting on Covid on Monday, the group said the emergence of Omicron meant vaccine passports and reducing social contacts through working from home were ‘highly relevant’.

The meeting, chaired by England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Science Officer Sir Patrick Vallance, concluded that the strain’s infectiousness was undisputed but evidence of its effect on vaccines is still murky. 

In a separate meeting of SAGE’s modelling subgroup Spi-M, scientists also warned that coronavirus would likely put pressure on the NHS for a further five years at least before becoming endemic — weakened to the point of a common cold thanks to jabs and natural immunity. 

They said continued monitoring and ‘active’ measures would be required until 2026, although they did not stipulate what these may involve. 

But they conceded that despite the threat posed by, there is not enough evidence yet to suggest its 32 mutations making it significantly more vaccine evasive. 

Scientist won’t know the full scale of Omicron’s infectiousness, vaccine evasiveness or lethality for another two or three weeks, when they can isolate the virus in a lab and study its biology and test it against the blood of previous-infected or vaccinated people. 

But the variant appears to now be spreading domestically in England even though only a few dozen cases have officially been confirmed. 

Official data shows that the proportion of positive Covid tests with a mutation synonymous with the highly-evolved strain is on the rise. Like Alpha, or the ‘Kent variant’, Omicron has a specific alteration which means it can be detected through PCR tests without the need for genomic sequencing.

The proportion of positive tests in England with this so-called S-gene dropout has risen from 0.1 per cent in the past week to 0.3 per cent, the equivalent of one in 330. Scientists said the increase in S-gene dropouts suggests there could be hundreds of Omicron cases that are flying under the radar currently. 

Meanwhile, a major British study in booster vaccines found that both Moderna and Pfizer triple the level of T cells in double-jabbed people, which the scientists said made them confident boosters will give very high protection against Omicron. Some 59 cases have been confirmed in Britain so far. 

It comes as public health officials in Gauteng, the epicentre of South Africa’s outbreak, estimate the province’s R rate has surged from less than one to 3.5 in just a month — suggesting that every 10 infected people are passing the virus onto 35 others. 

Some 59 cases of Omicron have been confirmed in the UK so far. Twenty-nine infections have been spotted in England, including three in Westminster and two in each of Barnet, Buckinhamshire, Camden, Lewisham and South Northamptonshire. And Scotland's cases today increased by 16 to 29. The first 13 infections were divided between Lanarkshire and the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area. Today, two more cases were spotted in Lanarkshire, five more in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, while three were identified in the Highlands, one in Grampian and five in Forth Valley. And Wales announced this afternoon that its first case has been found in Cardiff

Some 59 cases of Omicron have been confirmed in the UK so far. Twenty-nine infections have been spotted in England, including three in Westminster and two in each of Barnet, Buckinhamshire, Camden, Lewisham and South Northamptonshire. And Scotland’s cases today increased by 16 to 29. The first 13 infections were divided between Lanarkshire and the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area. Today, two more cases were spotted in Lanarkshire, five more in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, while three were identified in the Highlands, one in Grampian and five in Forth Valley. And Wales announced this afternoon that its first case has been found in Cardiff

In the minutes from SAGE's 97th meeting on Covid held on Monday, the group said the emergence of Omicron meant bringing in vaccine passports and the return of work-from-home guidance were 'highly relevant'

In the minutes from SAGE’s 97th meeting on Covid held on Monday, the group said the emergence of Omicron meant bringing in vaccine passports and the return of work-from-home guidance were ‘highly relevant’

Papers released by subgroup Nervtag warned the highly evolved strain could cause a surge in cases 'similar or even larger' than previous waves

Papers released by subgroup Nervtag warned the highly evolved strain could cause a surge in cases ‘similar or even larger’ than previous waves

In a separate meeting of SAGE modelling subgroup Spi-M, scientists also warned that coronavirus would likely cause misery in Britain for a further five years at least before becoming endemic

In a separate meeting of SAGE modelling subgroup Spi-M, scientists also warned that coronavirus would likely cause misery in Britain for a further five years at least before becoming endemic

Official data shows that the proportion of positive Covid tests with a mutation synonymous with the highly-evolved strain is on the rise. Like Alpha, or the 'Kent variant', Omicron has a specific alteration which means it can be detected through PCR tests without the need for genomic sequencing. The proportion of positive tests in England with this so-called S-gene dropout has risen from 0.1 per cent in the past week to 0.3 per cent, the equivalent of one in 330. Scientists said the increase in S-gene dropouts suggests there could be hundreds of Omicron cases that are flying under the radar currently

Official data shows that the proportion of positive Covid tests with a mutation synonymous with the highly-evolved strain is on the rise. Like Alpha, or the ‘Kent variant’, Omicron has a specific alteration which means it can be detected through PCR tests without the need for genomic sequencing. The proportion of positive tests in England with this so-called S-gene dropout has risen from 0.1 per cent in the past week to 0.3 per cent, the equivalent of one in 330. Scientists said the increase in S-gene dropouts suggests there could be hundreds of Omicron cases that are flying under the radar currently 

Covid booster vaccines are likely to offer good protection against the Omicron variant, experts behind a Government-funded new study say. Graph shows: The number of T-cells per 10^6 peripheral blood mononuclear cells in people who have had two doses of the AstraZeneca after a third dose of the Pfizer (red bars) and Moderna (blue bars) vaccines

Covid booster vaccines are likely to offer good protection against the Omicron variant, experts behind a Government-funded new study say. Graph shows: The number of T-cells per 10^6 peripheral blood mononuclear cells in people who have had two doses of the AstraZeneca after a third dose of the Pfizer (red bars) and Moderna (blue bars) vaccines

First sign of Omicron spreading in England: Official chart shows slight uptick in positive tests with hallmarks of super-variant 

The super-mutant Omicron variant appears to now be spreading domestically in England even though only a few dozen cases have officially been confirmed, a new chart suggests.

Official data shows that the proportion of positive Covid tests with a mutation synonymous with the highly-evolved strain is on the rise. Like Alpha, or the ‘Kent variant’, Omicron has a specific alteration which means it can be detected through PCR tests without the need for genomic sequencing.

The proportion of positive tests in England with this so-called S-gene dropout has risen from 0.1 per cent in the past week to 0.3 per cent, the equivalent of one in 330. Scientists said the increase in S-gene dropouts suggests there could be hundreds of Omicron cases that are flying under the radar currently.

While the variant is likely only making up a small number of cases in the UK — where 50,000 people on average are testing positive each day, most with Delta — it is feared the country could be on the brink of a fresh wave.   

It comes as public health officials in Gauteng, the epicentre of South Africa’s outbreak, estimate the province’s R rate has surged from less than one to 3.5 in just a month — suggesting that every 10 infected people are passing the virus onto 35 others.

The Omicron strain has triggered a meteoric rise in cases in South Africa, mostly concentrated in Gauteng, since the country that first alerted the world about the highly-evolved virus on November 24.

Nationally, cases there soared to 11,535 on Thursday marking a 370 per cent rise in a week, and up a third on around 8,500 yesterday. It has become the dominant strain in the country in little over a week since it was officially discovered, making up 75 per cent of sequenced samples.

SAGE said bringing back face coverings in all indoor public settings — including restaurants and bars — remained a ‘highly relevant’ way of countering the variant. 

They said: ‘Past SAGE advice on measures to reduce transmission remains highly relevant, including but not limited to advice around ventilation, face coverings, hand hygiene, reducing contacts (e.g. by working from home), vaccination certification, and the importance of effective testing, contact tracing and isolation.’

No10 introduced new rules on Monday to make face masks compulsory on public transport and in shops, hairdressers and beauty salons in England.

But it stopped short of bringing back the rules in bars, cafes and restaurants — unlike in Scotland, which has already brought them in.

Vaccine passports at large public events and the return of work from home guidance formed the two other key areas of the Government’s winter ‘Plan B’, which ministers said would be ‘enacted if the data suggests further measures are necessary to protect the NHS’.

Cases in the UK have been increasing for the last two days after a further 10 cases of the variant were picked up in England yesterday, taking Britain’s total number to 44.

But hospitalisations and deaths have continued to fall for weeks, with the increase in cases so far limited mostly to younger, less vulnerable age groups and booster vaccines limiting severe disease in the elderly.

However, members of the Department of Health’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) claimed the onset of Omicron could trigger a wave of infections ‘even larger’ than previous ones. 

Nervtag said: ‘The subgroup concludes that if introduced into the UK, B.1.1.529 would likely be capable of initiating a new wave of infections. 

‘We cannot exclude that this wave would be of a magnitude similar, or even larger, than previous waves.’

That could lead to levels of hospitalisation and death similar to last January if the strain proves to be as evasive as some experts’ worse fears.

But SAGE insisted the extent to which the variant stops jabs working as they should is still not clear, with data from South Africa proving difficult to assess given the country’s low vaccination rate compared to the UK.

More than 80 per cent of eligible Brits (46.4million) have had two doses of a Covid vaccine, compared to just over half of that in proportion in South Africa, where around 43 per cent have had both jabs.

They suggested booster vaccines are still likely to protect Brits against severe disease, hospitalisation and death with the variant and backed the Government’s move to increase booster coverage across Britain.

Boris Johnson announced No10’s new strategy to give boosters to every adult in the country by the end of January in an effort to reduce the burden on the NHS caused by the variant. 

Data in South Africa shows the R-rate has soared to over three per cent in recent weeks as Omicron took hold in Gauteng province

Data in South Africa shows the R-rate has soared to over three per cent in recent weeks as Omicron took hold in Gauteng province

New images of the Omicron variant's 32 mutations (left) were released yesterday by the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK). They show the variant's three mutations — H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the image — that could help the virus sneak into the body more easily

New images of the Omicron variant’s 32 mutations (left) were released yesterday by the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK). They show the variant’s three mutations — H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the image — that could help the virus sneak into the body more easily

‘Keep calm and carry on with your Christmas plans’: Oliver Dowden attempts to end confusion over festive advice 

Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden today insisted people should ‘keep calm and carry on’ with their Christmas plans and parties despite Omicron – but Britain’s pubs, hotels, restaurants and clubs already set to lose billions say ‘the damage is already done’ as the cancellations continue.

Mr Dowden insisted the Government had been clear in its guidelines – despite a plethora of ministers offering contradictory and confusing advice – and said: ‘There’s a Conservative Party Christmas party still planned’.

He also said that providing Britons abide by mask rules on public transport and in shops, they can kiss anyone they like under the mistletoe.

Boris Johnson has urged businesses not to cancel office parties and proceed with caution when his ministers either told people to cancel, wear masks, take tests and not snog strangers – none of which are in the Government guidelines.

Mr Dowden told Sky News: ‘The message to people, I think, is fairly straightforward – which is keep calm, carry on with your Christmas plans. We’ve put the necessary restrictions in place, but beyond that keep calm and carry on.

‘I understand that people have concerns around the new variant. That’s why the Government has taken the sort of measures that we’ve already outlined … we think those are sufficient at this stage and, beyond that, people should continue with their plans as intended.’

Amid confusion about what to do, many of Britain’s biggest employers including the NHS, banks and tech firms have axed festive bashes completely or taken them online. It is now said to be a 50/50 split.

The group said: ‘Booster vaccinations have been shown to produce very strong antibody responses and are likely to provide protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and death from most variants at least in the short term, with protection against severe disease remaining higher than protection against infection. 

‘Increasing coverage of booster vaccinations — as well as increasing coverage of primary courses — is therefore an important defence.’

They continued: ‘Other vaccine strategies, such as updated vaccines, may also need to be considered depending on the degree of immune escape. 

‘Companies are already pursuing both multivalent vaccines and Omicron specific vaccines.’ 

A Government-funded trial today showed the body’s T-cell immune response after a third dose suggests vaccines will continue to protect against hospitalisation and death from the new strain. 

T-cells are thought to provide longer lasting and broader protection than antibodies which deliver an initial higher boost of protection but also see that defence fade faster over time.   

Professor Saul Faust, trial lead and director of the NIHR Clinical Research Facility at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, said: ‘Even though we don’t properly understand its relation to long-term immunity, the T cell data is showing us that it does seem to be broader against all the variant strains, which gives us hope that a variant strain of the virus might be able to be handled, certainly for hospitalisation and death if not prevention of infection, by the current vaccines,’ Professor Faust said.

He said T cell response was not just focused on the spike protein but ‘are recognising a much broader range of antigens that might… be common to all of the variants.’

Asked specifically about Omicron, he said: ‘Our hope as scientists is that protection against hospitalisation and death will remain intact.’ 

Despite the hopes afforded by boosters, the SAGE papers today suggested Britain will not be coronavirus-free for at least another five years. 

Experts suggested some form of measures will be needed for the next half a decade, with constant monitoring required to prevent future waves after Omicron has finished. 

SAGE said: ‘SARS-CoV-2 will continue to be a threat to health system function and require active management, of which vaccination and surveillance are key, for at least the next five years.’

Britains vaccines minister Maggie Throup last night told Brits they ‘probably will’ have to get a coronavirus booster jab every year.

Ms Throup pointed to the Government’s latest vaccine purchase of 114million new doses which are due to be delivered in 2022 and 2023 as she said ‘it would be wrong of us not to be prepared’.

The comments on the BBC’s Question Time programme came after the boss of Pfizer, Dr Albert Bourla, said annual vaccinations ‘are likely to be needed’. 

The Government announced earlier this week that it had agreed to buy 114million extra doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be delivered over the next two years.

That purchase sparked speculation that Brits could be offered a fourth and even a fifth jab in the coming years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.