The British government said Thursday it won’t introduce any new coronavirus restrictions until after Christmas, and called early studies on the severity of the omicron variant encouraging.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said two studies suggesting omicron carries a significantly lower risk of hospitalization than the previously dominant delta strain was "encouraging news." But he said it was "not very clear yet ... by how much that risk is reduced."
The U.K. Health Security Agency is due to publish new data on omicron later Thursday. It follows two studies, from Imperial College London and Scottish researchers, that found patients with omicron were between 20% and 68% less likely to require hospital treatment than those with delta.
Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, have also suggested omicron might be milder there. Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact that omicron spreads much faster than delta and is more able to evade vaccines.
Given those factors, the new variant could still overwhelm health systems because of the sheer number of infections. Confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.K., where omicron is now dominant, have surged by almost 60% in a week. Britain’s Office for National Statistics estimated Friday that about 1 in 45 people in private households in England — 1.2 million individuals — had COVID-19 in the week to Dec. 16, the highest level seen in the pandemic.
Britain’s Conservative government this month reinstated rules requiring face masks in shops and ordered people to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test before entering nightclubs and other crowded venues in an attempt to slow omicron’s spread.
Officials also urged people to get tested regularly and cut back on socializing. Many in Britain have heeded that advice, leaving entertainment and hospitality businesses reeling at what should be their busiest time of the year.
The government has offered grants and loans to support restaurants, bars, theaters and other venues, but many say it is not enough to stop them going under.
Rules set by the U.K. government apply in England. Other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have set slightly tighter restrictions, including the closure of nightclubs.
Javid said the British government would "keep analyzing (the) data, and if we need to do anything more, we will, but nothing more is going to happen before Christmas."
"Despite the caution that we are all taking, people should enjoy their Christmases with their families and their friends — of course, remain cautious," he said.
The government is hoping vaccine boosters will provide a bulwark against omicron, as the data suggests, and has set a goal of offering everyone 18 and up a third shot by the end of December.