There are no promises from Health Secretary Sajid Javid about whether more restrictions will come in January, as latest figures show that Christmas day COVID-19 cases reached a December high

Konstantin Yuganov christmas covid mask winter

Tougher COVID-19 restrictions in England to control the spread of the Omicron variant have been ruled out before the New Year. The announcement followed a briefing to Boris Johnson by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.

The decision to stick with ‘plan B’ puts England at odds with other UK nations that have opted for a tougher approach to slow the spread of Omicron. It came as figures showed that England has over 10.7 million positive COVID-19 cases as of December 29, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. Overall in the UK, there are more than 12.6 million positive cases.

In addition, the number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 in England reached its highest level since March. There were 8474 people hospitalised in England by 8am on Monday 27 December—the highest number since March 5, but well below the January 2021 peak of 34,336.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid did not rule out introducing further measures in January in the light of developments. He urged people to adopt a ‘cautious’ approach to New Year celebrations.

Despite ‘a lot of uncertainty’ about Omicron, Mr Javid said he understood the variant made up ‘some 90% of cases’ across England. He referred to ‘positive news’ in recent days that suggested Omicron might be milder than its Delta predecessor and will likely lead to fewer hospitalisations.

COVID-19 symptoms ‘out of date’

The Government has also been urged to change public advice on how to recognise symptoms of COVID-19 infection.

Ever since the emergence of the Alpha variant of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, the NHS has warned to look out for a high temperature, a new and continuous cough, and a loss of or change to the sense of smell or taste.

However, data from the ZOE COVID study suggests that infected users of its app were most commonly reporting a sore throat, runny nose, headache, fatigue, and sneezing.

‘We need to change public messaging urgently to save lives, as half of people with cold-like symptoms now have COVID,’ said Professor Tim Spector, the study’s Lead Investigator.

COVID-19 and vaccines for children

With the new school term around the corner, some scientists are calling for many more children to be vaccinated, including those aged 5–11 years. Recent research by Imperial College London has suggested that primary school children, who have mainly been ineligible for vaccination, were driving the spread of COVID-19.

In the 3 weeks leading up to December 14, infection prevalence of this largely unvaccinated cohort stood at 4.74%, compared with 2.31% of 12-to-17-year-olds, most of whom had received at least one dose of vaccine.

No decision has yet been taken about whether to offer a vaccine for all primary school children in England aged 5–11.

In a webinar earlier this month on Omicron, epidemiologist Professor John Edmonds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘From the population perspective, it is clear that we need to vaccinate everyone from 5 years up.’ 

He went on to caution that ‘we need to think about it harder, particularly for young children under the age of 11, because they are much less likely to have severe consequences of COVID, so we need to examine safety signals very carefully.’

Last week, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended that children aged 5–11 who are in a clinical risk group, or who are a household contact of someone who is immunosuppressed, should be offered a primary course of vaccination. This recommendation followed a decision by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to approve the use of two 10-microgram doses 8 weeks apart of the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine in this age group.

Separately, in response to the threat from the Omicron variant, the JCVI advised that booster vaccinations should be offered to people aged:

  • 16–17 years
  • 12–15—if they are in a clinical risk group or are a household contact of someone who is immunosuppressed
  • 12–15 years—if they are severely immunocompromised, including if they have had a third primary dose.

‘Further advice regarding COVID-19 vaccination for other 5-to-11-year-olds will be issued in due course following consideration of additional data relevant to this age group, and on the Omicron variant more broadly,’ the JCVI said in a statement.

Christmas COVID-19 cases

Figures published on Monday showed there were 113,628 daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Christmas Day in England, with another 103,558 confirmed cases on Boxing Day, and 98,515 on Monday.

Wales reported 5335 new daily COVID-19 cases on Monday, and provisional figures for Scotland suggested there were 10,562 there as well.

A total of 1281 patients with COVID-19 were admitted to hospital in England on Christmas Day, up from 1020 on Christmas Eve and 698 on December 1.

COVID-19 booster doses

The post-Christmas Government update showed that almost 32.5 million people in the UK had received a booster dose of vaccine up until Boxing Day—approximately 56.5% of the population aged 12 and over.

Uptake of COVID-19 first doses increased by around 46%, and second doses by 39%, in England in the week ending December 21, the Department of Health and Social Care said.

Meanwhile, a preprint study suggested that third doses of both the Pfizer–BioNTech and AstraZeneca–Oxford COVID-19 vaccines increase neutralising antibodies against the Omicron variant.

Investigators at the University of Oxford found that neutralising titres for Omicron increased 34.2-fold at 28 days following a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and 2.7-fold after a third dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford and one of the paper’s co-authors, said: ‘It is very encouraging to see that current vaccines have the potential to protect against Omicron following a third dose booster. These results support the use of third dose boosters as part of national vaccine strategies, especially to limit the spread of variants of concern, including Omicron.’

This article was originally published on Medscape News UK, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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Lead image: Konstantin Yuganov/stock.adobe.com

Image 1: Konstantin Yuganov/stock.adobe.com