Cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant are now being treated in hospitals, cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi has told Sky News.
Even if the COVID-19 Omicron mutation proves to cause less severe symptoms than the Delta variant, high infection rates could still see tens of thousands of people end up in hospital, Mr Zahawi warned.
Speaking to the Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme, he said: “I can confirm to you this morning there are cases in hospital with Omicron.”
He also cautioned the new strain was “so infectious that it will dominate and exponentially grow”.
Mr Zahawi said: “Let’s do a mathematic exercise for a second. You get to a million infections by say the end of December – 1% is 10,000 severe infections that could be in hospital.
“Three days later it is two million, three days later it is four million. Three days beyond that it is eight million.
“That is the risk, that even if it is milder, say 50% milder than Delta, then the numbers are huge – it is a small percentage of a very large population.
Referring to the reimposition of restrictions to help curb the spread of the highly-contagious variant, Mr Zahawi: “The reason we are taking these proportionate, I think precautionary measures – the most significant thing, scientists tell us, is the work from home, that has the greatest impact on slowing down Omicron, hence why we’ve had to take these measures.”
Speaking as the booster programme was extended to the over 30s, Mr Zahawi said: “It is now a race between the booster and that protection, and the Omicron variant.”
He added: “We are over 20 million (booster jabs) already.
“We are now in a race to get all adults who are eligible for their booster jab to be boostered as quickly as possible, and the prime minister will be saying more about this later today.
“This is going to be a national endeavour to boost the nation as quickly as possible so we can control Omicron and bring back that equilibrium that we had with the virus, as we continue to protect the economy and of course on that journey towards endemic from pandemic status.”
Mr Zahawi also spoke out in defence of Mr Johnson, after a picture emerged of the prime minister, flanked by colleagues, virtually hosting a Downing Street Christmas quiz last December, sparking fresh accusations of party rule-breaking during lockdown restrictions.
Mr Johnson is also under pressure in facing what could prove to be the largest rebellion of his premiership, with more than 60 Conservative MPs said to be against the imposition of additional coronavirus restrictions, including vaccine passports being made mandatory for large venues.
Former Brexit minister and leading rebel Steve Baker told Trevor Phillips he would be opposing the measures and added: “I think what we are doing now is creating a miserable dystopia into which we are going forward.
“Pretty soon we are going to have to start learning why it is that we have always believed in this country that freedom under the rule of law mattered.
“We have got to show that there is a movement for that frame of mind, because if we don’t the Conservative Party will continue to drift into authoritarianism and I simply cannot stand idly by while that happens.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the opposition would vote for the government’s measures but for the NHS, not the prime minister.
He said: “If you look at the science in relation to Omicron, the new variant, there is a real concern that we could be in a situation where the number of cases is doubling in a shorter period of two days.
“Now I understand people say that that hasn’t led to higher hospitalisations and deaths yet, but the sheer volume of cases is very, very worrying.
“So I’m not supporting the prime minister on Tuesday, I’m supporting our NHS, and I’m supporting the public in relation to this pandemic.”