Could Omicron cases have peaked?

Professor Alastair Grant of the University of East Anglia.

Professor Alastair Grant of the University of East Anglia. - Credit: Archant

Two Norfolk scientists have said the growth of the Omicron variant in England appears to be plateauing, and that cases could even start to decline in the coming days.

Professors Alastair Grant and Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia (UEA) said the latest available data suggested that the new Covid variant was no longer doubling every day. 

Both cautioned, however, that while cases seemed to be plateauing, the impact on hospitals was less clear at this stage.  

Prof Grant, who has four decades of experience in data modelling, said the release of relatively encouraging data on Monday might have been why the government decided against announcing further restrictions that day.

He said Monday's data had made him “certainly less pessimistic” than he was on Sunday about the latest Covid variant.

“It looks like that exponential growth of Omicron is starting to decline,” he said.

“Unless there’s something very radical [that’s] happened to the data, I think we will see the number’s plateauing over the next one or two days, and we may even start to see numbers declining.”

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His colleague professor Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases, similarly said that the “latest data suggests that total case numbers, and therefore Omicron, may already have plateaued or even peaked”.

Prof Paul Hunter of the UEA's Norwich medical school. Photo: Bill Smith

Prof Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases - Credit: Archant 2013

He pointed out that total infections reported daily had been relatively flat for almost a week. 

"If infections had continued doubling, at roughly the same rate as they were a week ago, we should be at half a million infections today [Tuesday December 21] - and we've got 90,000.

"That's remarkable," said Prof Hunter, who added that it was not yet possible to say whether the numbers would actually start to decline from their apparently stable level.

Several factors could account for the apparent slowdown, said Prof Grant.

“In some ways that [numbers are appearing to plateau] is not surprising. There are lots of people being boosted.

People out and about in Gentleman's Walk as face masks are to become compulsory on public transport

People are once again required to wear facemasks in shops and on public transport. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

“The hospitality industry is saying that lots of people have cancelled their Christmas parties, and certainly, walking around Norwich on Saturday, the final Saturday before Christmas, it was really quite quiet.”

He cautioned however that despite the “signs of hope” there were several uncertainties, including delays to tests being processed due to the sheer number being carried out.

“There may be people deciding not to get a test, because they prefer not to know.

“There are always people who get positive test results on lateral flow and don’t bother reporting it but still self-isolate. 

“There may be people who are deciding that they don’t want a positive test result on their file, so that they don’t have to self-isolate - it’s impossible to quantify that, but there are suggestions that that happened in the run-up to last Christmas.”

Prof Grant said it was “too early to know how hospitals are going to be impacted”. 

The Norfolk and Norfolk University Hospital sign. Picture: Norfolk and Norfolk University Hospital

The Norfolk and Norfolk University Hospital - Credit: Norfolk and Norfolk University H

He warned that the NHS was already experiencing record waits at emergency departments.

“The biggest concern is not so much the cases - it’s the impact that that has on the NHS.”

“The NHS was already struggling, before Omicron came along. They’re trying to recover from all of the deferred work from the past 21 months.” 

Substantial sickness absence is affecting both hospitals and social care, he added. 

“Even if there isn’t a big increase in hospitalisations, the capacity is being reduced, and the beginning of January is always the peak for A&E departments anyway.”

Asked whether Omicron might produce less severe symptoms than previous variants, Prof Grant said that on average it’s likely that people infected with Omicron will have milder symptoms because most of those people have been either double or triple-vaccinated. 

A person receiving a Covid-19 jab

The vaccine booster roll-out is being further ramped up. - Credit: PA

“It’s less to do with the variant - it’s that we’re seeing those cases among people who have a greater degree of immune protection.” 

“Delta was more aggressive than Alpha, so it might be that it’s back down to Alpha in terms of severity [of symptoms], but the main influence is how much immunity you’ve got.”

Research published last week however by Imperial College London found “no evidence of Omicron having lower severity than Delta, judged by either the proportion of people testing positive who report symptoms, or by the proportion of cases seeking hospital care after infection”.

They caveated that “hospitalisation data remains very limited at this time”.

Even as total case numbers decline, the Omicron variant could begin to spread from the younger age groups towards people in their 80s, said Prof Grant. 

Looking to Christmas, a day which tends to bring generations together, Prof Grant said: "I guess all people can do is make sure that they do lateral flow tests before they meet up with their relatives and ideally doing that on several consecutive days, just to make sure. 

“If I were meeting elderly relatives on Christmas Day, then I would prioritise that over other social activities on the couple of days beforehand, and I would make sure I was doing lateral flow tests.”