Omicron cases soar in Britain as the world braces for new holiday COVID restrictions—and the backlash

December 10, 2021, 11:56 AM UTC

The Omicron COVID-19 variant is barreling through the British public as the U.K. government rushes out new restrictions and a booster jab push, risking a public backlash as the holiday season arrives.

Cases of the new variant have doubled every three days in the U.K., with 817 cases of Omicron detected yesterday—although experts warn that this figure likely underestimates how many of the 50,000 people in the U.K. who tested positive for COVID Thursday have the new strain.

Britain’s Health Security Agency warned that if growth rates continue on the same trajectory, “we expect to see at least 50% of COVID-19 cases to be caused by the Omicron variant in the next two to four weeks.” The health agency said the new variant, first detected in South Africa, “suggests that Omicron is displaying a significant growth advantage over Delta.”

Preliminary estimates suggest that Omicron has an R number—which measures how many people an infected person will pass the virus on to—of between 3 and 3.5, which is roughly on par with how fast the coronavirus spread when it went global in early 2020, before the public had vaccine protection. In South Africa, where Omicron is still mostly concentrated, cases of the variant have surged by 255% in the past seven days.

Some experts warn the new variant could soon spread even faster, with epidemiologist John Edmunds predicting Omicron cases in the U.K. may exceed 60,000 a day by Christmas.

The Omicron variant has now been reported in 50 countries and 19 U.S. states, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House press briefing.

Across Europe, the numbers are far lower than in the U.K. Denmark has detected the highest number of cases, with 83 people contracting the new variant, while Portugal, the Netherlands, and France follow with around 30 detected cases. All cases where there was available information on severity were either asymptomatic or mild, in line with mounting evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that the new variant often causes less severe illness.

Another holiday lockdown?

The U.K., which had some of the most relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in Europe, adopted its “plan B” strategy Wednesday in response to Omicron, reintroducing work from home and mask mandates and asking people to flash vaccine passports for entry into some venues. The City of London has also begun to close shop for the holidays, with HSBC, J.P. Morgan, and Deutsche Bank telling its London staff to stay at home.

“I think we are looking at a horrible winter,” Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control, told the New York Times in reference to the exponential spread of Omicron.

Many in London are experiencing a sense of déjà vu, after an expected relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions last December was canceled, making many planned Christmas gatherings illegal. Professor Neil Greenberg at King’s College London warned of the mental health impact of the new “plan B,” saying the new measures themselves are not overly restrictive, but that “many people are likely to fear the uncertainty of the future now more than ever.”

“There have now been multiple new measures introduced in quick succession, and the message this gives is that it is more likely than not that even more restrictive measures will be introduced in the very near future,” Greenberg noted.

Possible backlash

The broad spread in the U.K. comes at a pivotal moment in the fight against the pandemic, both in Britain and internationally, as populations have begun to rebel against new restrictions and vaccine mandates in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and farther afield.

Professor Francois Balloux of London’s UCL Genetics Institute said on Twitter that if Omicron turns out to be less dangerous than previous variants, the institution of new restrictions risks causing a “major backlash against authorities, which might make it more difficult to decisively respond to potential future threats.”

“The Omicron wave, (and its response to it) feels like the ultimate lose-lose-lose situation,” he wrote.

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