People with the Omicron variant of coronavirus are much less likely to be hospitalised than those with the Delta, Britain’s health security agency (UKHSA) has said.
But the agency warned that the variant spreads so easily and the number being infected is so high that the National Health Service (NHS) could still struggle to cope with hospitalisations.
The UKHSA said an analysis of all cases of Omicron and Delta in Britain since the start of November, including 132 people admitted to hospital, suggested that those with Omicron are between 50 per cent and 70 per cent less likely to need hospital treatment.
They are up to 45 per cent less likely to go to a hospital emergency department and up to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital.
"Our latest analysis shows an encouraging early signal that people who contract the Omicron variant may be at a relatively lower risk of hospitalisation than those who contract other variants," the agency's chief executive Jenny Harries said.
“Cases are currently very high in the UK, and even a relatively low proportion requiring hospitalisation could result in a significant number of people becoming seriously ill.”
The UK reported a record 119,789 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, as prime minister Boris Johnson kept open the prospect of imposing new restrictions after Christmas.
“After two years of this pandemic, I can’t say that we are through it. How can I? When Omicron is surging, when we all know, we must together try to stop the spread of this new variant, we must test ourselves and take extra care when meeting elderly or vulnerable relatives. We know that things remain difficult,” he said in his Christmas message.
“But for millions of families up and down the country, I hope and believe that this Christmas is, and will be, significantly better than the last, in this vital respect. That we can celebrate together with those we love and raise our glasses to those who can’t be with us.”
The rise in infections has hit hospitals, transport networks and other essential services with staff shortages in recent days and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have announced new restrictions to come into force after Christmas. But Mr Johnson has delayed any decision until more data about Omicron is available and many Conservative MPs oppose any new regulations.
In his Christmas message, he stressed the importance of getting vaccinated and taking up the offer of a booster jab, which he has promised to make available to all eligible adults by the end of this month.
“Across the country, in the run-up to Christmas, we have been giving each other an invisible and invaluable present. We have been getting that vaccination that protects us and stops us infecting others. And I hope I can be forgiven for taking pride in the immense spirit of neighbourliness that the people of this country have shown. Getting jabbed not just for themselves, for ourselves, but for friends and family and everyone we meet,” he said.