UK raises COVID alert level; plans ambitious vaccine roll-out

The UK raised its COVID alert level on Sunday in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the virus, as medical authorities warned that hospitalisations are likely to rise sharply over the coming weeks.

The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recommended an increase to alert level 4 from level 3 on its 5-point scale, which means they judge transmission of the virus to be high.

“Early evidence shows that Omicron is spreading much faster than Delta and that vaccine protection against symptomatic disease from Omicron is reduced,” the medical officers said in a joint statement.

“Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalisations from Omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly.”

The raising of the threat level was followed by a live televised address by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who stressed the importance of getting a third vaccine to combat the spread of the Omicron variant.

A further 1,239 new cases of Omicron were announced in the UK on Sunday, bringing the total number of UK Omicron cases to more than 3,000 – although the real number is estimated to be much higher.

Johnson said that every UK adult citizen over the age of 18 who has received two doses of the vaccine at least three months ago should now receive a third jab.

“No one should be in any doubt, there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming,” Johnson said in a TV statement on Sunday evening.

“It is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need. But the good news is that our scientists are confident that with a third dose, a booster dose, we can all bring our level of protection back up.”

He added: “At this point our scientists cannot say that Omicron is less severe.”

“And even if that proved to be true, we already know it is so much more transmissible that a wave of Omicron through a population that was not boosted would risk a level of hospitalisation that could overwhelm our NHS and lead sadly to very many deaths.”

The target to vaccinate all adults by the end of January will be brought forward by a month, he said.

Some medical appointments may also be postponed to focus on boosters.

Key components of the UK’s third vaccine strategy:

  • 42 military planning teams will be deployed across every region to help the effort
  • extra vaccine sites and mobile units will be set up across England
  • opening hours of clinics will be extended with more appointments
  • thousands more volunteer vaccinators will be trained

Also on Sunday, the US government’s leading infectious diseases official, Anthony Fauci, stepped up calls for Americans to receive a COVID-19 booster shot, as the US is approaching 800,000 lives lost to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Fauci warned that the Omicron variant appeared to be able to “evade” the protection of two initial doses of the mRNA-type COVID vaccines – Pfizer/BioNTech’s and Moderna’s – as well as post-infection therapies such as monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma.

He said an extra vaccine shot provides “optimal” protection against Omicron, even though the government’s official designation of “fully vaccinated” remained at two doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or one of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which was developed by another method.

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