We should respond early to omicron trends

When I was outside Government last year, I made several interventions highlighting the social and economic costs of the pandemic. Then, when I found myself parachuted at high speed into this job six months ago, I made clear that I was the Health and Social Care Secretary, not just the Covid Secretary. 

I quickly levelled with the public about the scale of the elective backlog – millions of missed checks, scans and operations. And I made my first speech about the entrenched health disparities and mental health issues in our country that get worse when we are forced to restrict normal life.

So I am acutely aware that these past two years have been painful, and the actions necessary to protect each other have been agonising. That is why I have set three ambitious overarching priorities: Covid, Recovery and Reform. Each mission in itself is a mammoth task, but after all we have been through already, we can’t afford not to pursue them in parallel.

Our health and social care system is in need of far-reaching reform to coincide with the massive investment we are putting in. That is how we recover and build a health service and social care sector that delivers for patients and is a place the workforce can thrive.

Standing in Parliament this week and arguing for Plan B brought me no joy – promoting individual freedom and opportunity is one of the reasons I got into politics. But we have to be clear-eyed about the challenge omicron presents. Our strategy since it emerged has been and remains to buy time for our scientists to assess the threat and build up our defences.

We have by far and away the biggest booster programme in Europe, we were one of the first to procure antivirals and we have one of the biggest testing programmes in the world. These defences mean we face this threat in the strongest position yet. We are also fortunate to have some of the world’s best clinicians and scientists advising the government, but my job is to interrogate that advice and challenge any assumptions underpinning it.

The reality is, there is much we still don’t know about omicron. We are faced with uncertainty and we do not have all the data we would want, but as policy makers, we have to work with what we have and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The most important trading decisions I made in my past career were when the data was early and patchy, but a trend was emerging. Once that trend leads to a clear outcome, it may be too late to react to it.

So let’s look at what we do know. We face a tsunami of infections in the coming days and weeks. Omicron spreads at a pace we have never seen before and has been doubling about every two to three days. Yesterday saw more than 90,000 new cases reported across the UK. We are extremely confident the number of infections – people with the disease but who have not been confirmed by a test – is significantly higher than that.

The other thing we know is that a booster provides strong protection against omicron. Analysis from our scientists shows that the boosters are more than 70 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infection. That is why our national mission to Get Boosted Now – with the NHS, Armed Forces, volunteers and public all playing their part – is so vital.

We don’t yet know how severe this variant is for individuals, but with it spreading so incredibly fast, even if it is less severe, we could see many more people infected than we have in any previous wave. A smaller proportion of a much bigger number can mean lots of people getting severely ill and needing the NHS to look after them.

We do know that Covid-19 hospitalisations are rising, especially in London. We do not yet know to what extent this is being driven by omicron because of the time it takes to identify, but it is something I am looking at very closely. Sadly, seven people have died with omicron and 85 people are in hospital with confirmed omicron, but there are likely to be a lot more – some “with” omicron, many “because of” omicron. And we know that the typical time between infection and hospitalisation is 17 days, so today’s hospital numbers reflect infections that took place more than two weeks ago when omicron was here in much smaller numbers and represented fewer than one per cent of infections.

Every hospital bed needed for someone suffering with Covid – many of whom being unvaccinated are much more likely to require care – means the NHS is less able to treat people’s other health needs. The ultimate risk is that hospitalisations overwhelm the NHS. We need to learn to live with this virus, but the speed of omicron presents us with a new challenge: if we had waited to act before the full impact emerged, it could have been too late to change it. 

That is why we brought in measures this week to help slow the spread, buy time to learn more and build our defences in the face of uncertainty. And it’s not just about the state – the British public are already taking sensible precautions, too. 

Together we are taking a responsible and proportionate response.

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