Today I joined a briefing with the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty ahead of today’s Parliamentary votes on ‘plan B’ measures, in which he stressed concern about the “phenomenal” rate at which the omicron variant is spreading infection, doubling every couple of days, and taking over from other variants. He also stressed, from discussions with South African health and scientific experts, that there was no clear evidence that Omicron leads to milder illness.
I also met with Sheffield’s Director of Public Health who shares the CMO’s concern. Although there is much we still need to understand about its impact, we are already seeing hospitalisation and death resulting from the variant – which will have a direct impact on those infected, and on those with other conditions who will not be able to access hospital care as severe Covid-19 cases take up NHS capacity.
The priority now is to maximise vaccination by encouraging everyone to get a booster, and a first or second vaccination if they haven’t yet.
Studies have shown that vaccination reduces both cases of symptomatic and asymptomatic Covid-19, which means that fewer people will spread the virus (you can read more here) or become seriously ill themselves. Omicron has reduced existing protection, but vaccination still limits the risk of serious illness or death, as well as the risk of catching or spreading it, and substantially after a booster.
I appreciate that there is some concern on the introduction of a Covid-19 certification, although many people also welcome it. Certification is no longer for what was previously described as a ‘vaccine passport’, as it provides for a negative test as an alternative proof of status, as requested by Labour. We’ve also had assurances that it won’t be required for access to essential services.
Proof of Covid-19 status is being used by many countries as part of international travel arrangements, it has already been used successfully by many venues in the UK, and I’ve experienced its use in other countries where it has operated without problems.
I therefore support the introduction of Covid-19 certification in the light of the new challenge we face from the omicron variant. It’s not a silver bullet but, along with other measures like mask-wearing and home-working where possible, it will reduce transmission and serious illness. That’s important not only to protect the NHS and those who need it, but also to avoid a further lockdown with the huge impact it would have on schools and the economy.
I’m sorry that the Government have undermined confidence in their decisions through their mishandling of the pandemic at key moments, their often contradictory and confusing advice, and the double standards Boris Johnson has applied to himself and his friends over compliance with the rules. But their conduct can’t affect the way we view health decisions.
The Government do need to go further in helping people do the right things and I’ve written to the Chancellor seeking proper sick pay and support for businesses affected the measures we need to take (see here).