Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the United Kingdom faces a “tidal wave” of infections from the Omicron coronavirus variant, and announced a huge increase in booster vaccinations to strengthen defences against it.
“No one should be in any doubt: there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming,” he said in a televised address on Sunday, after the country’s medical advisers raised the COVID alert level due to a “rapid increase” in infection from the variant, which originated in South Africa last month.
In his address, the UK prime minister announced that everyone age 18 and older will be offered a third shot of vaccine by the end of this month in response to the Omicron “emergency.” The previous target was the end of January.
“I’m afraid we’re now facing an emergency in our battle with the new variant Omicron, and we must urgently reinforce our wall of vaccine protection to keep our friends and loved ones safe,” he said, adding that cases of the highly transmissible variant are doubling every two to three days.
An update on booster jabs. https://t.co/73NbmmhTiP
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 12, 2021
Johnson said it was “now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough” to protect fully against the new variant.
However, he said, “Our scientists are confident that with a third dose, a booster dose, we can all bring our level of protection back up.”
He announced a “national mission” to deliver booster vaccines, with pop-up vaccination centres, seven-day-a-week clinics getting support from teams of military planners and thousands of volunteer vaccinators.
The announcement came after a picture of Johnson emerged on Sunday flanked by colleagues hosting a Christmas quiz in Downing Street last year while London was under coronavirus restrictions.
Johnson’s December 31 target applies to England. The other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are also expected to speed up their vaccination campaigns.
UK scientists believe existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to Omicron, though preliminary data show that effectiveness appears to rise to between 70 percent and 75 percent after a third vaccine dose.
The UK health advisers said earlier on Sunday that the public health risk assessment would move from level three to four – the second-highest level – which indicates “transmission is high and pressure on healthcare services is widespread and substantial or rising”.
The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the emergence of the highly transmissible new strain “adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and health care services” at a time when COVID-19 is already widespread.
The doctors said early evidence shows Omicron is spreading much faster than the currently dominant Delta variant, and that vaccines offered less protection against it. British officials have said Omicron is likely to replace Delta as the dominant strain in the UK within days.
Concerns surrounding the new strain led Johnson’s Conservative government to reintroduce restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must be worn in most indoor settings, COVID-19 certificates must be shown to enter nightclubs and people are being urged to work from home if possible.
Many scientists have said that is unlikely to be enough, however, and are calling for tougher measures, which the government so far has resisted.
Scientists in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, said they see signs it may cause less severe disease than Delta, but caution that it is too soon to be certain.