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Daniel Holland

Health boss warns Omicron could repeat 'huge wave of problems' from first Covid lockdown

A North East health boss has warned that the Omicron variant could cause the same “huge wave of problems” as when the Covid pandemic first hit the UK – but says there is still time to prevent a repeat.

Prof Eugene Milne, Newcastle’s public health director, compared the rapid rise of the rapidly-spreading new variant to the virus ’ arrival here in early 2020, which led to hundreds of daily deaths by April of last year as the nation was plunged into lockdown.

But, as the public is urged to limit social contact in the run-up to Christmas and to get booster vaccinations as soon as possible, the expert says that “this is the time” to take action to avoid that happening again.

Go here for the latest coronavirus updates and breaking Covid-19 news

There have now been 261 confirmed Omicron cases in the North East but it is expected to become the dominant strain here within two weeks, as it is already thought to be in London.

Prof Milne told a meeting of the Newcastle City Futures Board on Wednesday: “I do think there is a danger that we are in the position we were in with the first wave of this, where it was circulating very widely in people who were not getting very ill in the community for some time before we then had that huge wave of problems when it got to April 2020.

“There is a danger that we are in that spot now and this is the time when we can do something about it. We don’t want to have that same pattern happen to us again.”

England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, also warned yesterday that a rise in Covid hospitalisations is “nailed on” after cases hit a record high, as he urged people to cut back on socialising ahead of Christmas.

Prof Milne told Wednesday’s board meeting of leader in Newcastle that there is a “significant risk of a big rise in hospitalisations and deaths” even though the severity of disease caused by Omicron remains unclear, due to the fact that it spreads so quickly.

He added: “Even with a variant that turns out to be milder, it is very much more infective and spreads more rapidly, so you can end up with extraordinary pressure simply because of the volume of cases that might generate. A lower probability of individuals becoming very sick can still result in more individuals who become very sick, simply because of a very large spread. That is one of our real worries at the moment.”

Caroline Docking, assistant chief executive of the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust, said that it was “really, really disappointing” to NHS workers to be facing a new battle against the Omicron variant – having recently seen the number of Covid patients at the Royal Victoria Infirmary drop thanks to the rollout of booster jabs to older age groups.

She added that extremely high demand on emergency hospital services had not diminished and urged people to get a vaccine as soon as possible – whether that is a first, second, or third dose.

Ms Docking said: “The most important message from a hospital activity perspective is to encourage people to get their vaccine. We continue to see that the people who are really unwell, the ones who need to go intensive care, are in the main the unvaccinated.

“It is just tragic that we are hearing people asking whether they can be vaccinated at that late point when they are admitted to hospital, when at that point it is just too late for them.

“If we can do anything at all, that message needs to get out loud and clear. It is an evergreen offer for vaccinations – if you have not had any vaccinations at all or you have only had one, you can book those and get them done quickly.

"We are not just giving boosters at the moment, we are giving the full course of vaccinations and I would not like people to forget that.”

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