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COVID-19: Government betting on Plan B to prevent huge number of ‘breakthrough’ infections

Doctors are trained in how to deliver bad news. But the chief medical officer is going to need his very best bedside manner in the coming weeks.

The slides Professor Chris Whitty showed at the Downing Street COVID briefing were eye-watering.

The latest daily figures show there have been more than 78,000 cases in the past 24 hours – 10,000 more than the previous record set all the way back in January.

And there will be worse to come.

“Records will be broken a lot in the next few weeks,” Prof Whitty said.

That’s because we have two epidemics happening at the same time. Delta hasn’t gone away.

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In recent weeks it has been accounting for around 50,000 cases a day, with the numbers rising and falling, but largely held in check by high vaccination rates.

Most cases are in children and the unvaccinated, and that will continue.

But we are now seeing Omicron making its mark on the daily stats as well.

The vaccine isn’t as effective against this variant and it is also more likely to re-infect people who have had COVID before.

So there is a huge pool of people who could become sick, whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated.

That will start to show in the hospital stats in the coming days.

Admissions in London – the country’s Omicron hotspot – are already beginning to rise.

By Christmas, Prof Whitty expects the variant to account for the majority of COVID hospitalisations in the capital.

We just don’t know how sick these people will be.

He seemed pretty fed up with people jumping on South African data suggesting that Omicron causes milder disease. It’s far too early to be sure, he said.

The country has recently had a huge wave of Delta infection – and high levels of antibodies are likely to give some protection against Omicron, taking the edge of symptoms.

So is it rising immunity, or a milder virus? And would it translate to the UK?

There is a danger in complacency.

Even if Omicron has half the hospitalisation rate, if cases more than double admissions would still rise.

The booster does make a difference. It will top up immunity against Delta.

And early data suggests it gives 70% protection against infection with Omicron. Protection against serious disease is likely to be higher.

But it won’t be enough. Even if, by some miracle, everyone got the jab by the end of the December there would still be huge numbers of “breakthrough” infections.

A lot hangs on the government’s Plan B. Many scientists fear it’s full of holes that give the virus opportunities to go on spreading, putting hospitals under pressure.

Maybe they are wrong.

But right now I’m seeing a lot of scientists who look genuinely shocked by how quickly Omicron is ripping through the population.

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