UK Covid live news: up to 15% of Omicron cases are reinfections, says top scientist

Good morning. And happy new year to everyone.

Or happy new year (medium confidence), as they might put it in a Sage report, using the standard formula scientists apply to show how confident they are about the judgments they make. (It’s not a habit that lobby correspondents have adopted, although perhaps we should.)

Medium confidence is probably also good way of summing up Prof Neil Ferguson’s overall mood when he was interviewed on the Today programme this morning. Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist whose modelling is closely followed by government, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the Omicron pandemic may have plateaued in London (where cases have been highest) amongst the under-50s. He told the programme:

I think I’m cautiously optimistic that infection rates in London in that key 18-50 age group, which has been driving the Omicron epidemic, may possibly have plateaued, it’s too early to say whether they’re going down yet.

And this is what he said when he was asked whether he thought, overall, the effect of Omicron was as bad as originally feared, or whether it was better. He replied:

I think the good news here is it is certainly less severe. We think, if you’ve never been infected before, never had a vaccine, [there is] about a one third drop in the risk of just any hospital admission, probably a two thirds drop in the risk of dying from Omicron. So [it is] substantially less severe. And that has helped us undoubtedly. We would be seeing much higher infection case numbers in hospital otherwise.

And vaccines, as we always expected they would, are holding up against severe outcomes well.

Well that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be, as the prime minister said, a difficult few weeks for the NHS.

This may not sound definitive, but Ferguson sounded noticeably more confident today about Omicron being less severe than Delta than he was two weeks ago, when Imperial College published early research on this topic.

I will post more from his interview shortly.

Here is the agenda for the day.

11am: Keir Starmer delivers his speech in Birmingham. As Aubrey Allegretti reports, Starmer will use it to launch his plan to maintain the momentum of Labour’s poll lead in the runup to the next election.

11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.

Today I will be focusing mostly on UK Covid developments and on Starmer’s speech. For wider Covid coverage, do read our global live blog.

I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

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