1,000 omicron cases may already be in UK as ‘variant spreads faster than Delta,’ expert warns

There may already be over 1,000 omicron Covid cases in the UK, a leading scientist has suggested.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said there were concerns the omicron variant of coronavirus was “spreading rather more quickly than the delta variant”.

“How it’s likely to spread in the UK still uncertain, but I think the early signs are that it will probably spread quite quickly and probably start outcompeting delta and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least,” Prof Hunter told BBC Breakfast on Monday morning.

His estimate of 1,000 UK cases is four times the number officially confirmed by British health authorities.

However, there was not yet enough evidence to know whether omicron affected those infected more severely than delta.

Emerging data from South Africa, where the omicron variant was first discovered, is difficult to translate to the UK, he said, because our vaccination rate is significantly higher.

“The big remaining question is actually how harmful it is if you do get Covid with this omicron variant, and that’s the question that we’re struggling to answer at the moment.”

When South African scientists first announced they had identified a new and potentially vaccine-resistant variant, the British government quickly shut its borders to travellers from countries in southern Africa, and has since toughened testing requirements for all others entering the UK.

However, Prof Hunter said he did not believe these measures would make a significant difference in stopping the spread of omicron in Britain.

“One of the problems with travel restrictions like this is that it then de-motivates other countries to actually be open about their own situations for fear of what they would see as economic sanctions.

“So I think once the infection is spreading within a country, then border restrictions don’t really add anything.

“We’ve known that long before Covid. This has been knowledge that we’ve had for decades, if not centuries, to be honest.”

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