THE Omicron Covid variant is expected to become the dominant strain of the virus in Scotland from today, amid warnings it is “entirely possible” UK hospitalisations will exceed last winter’s peak.
Speaking during First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that Omicron was already accounting for 45 per cent of the cases confirmed in Scotland and was on track to overtake Delta before the weekend.
Once it did so it would “drive an even more rapid increase in cases”, she added.
She said: “Omicron is spreading exponentially fast, much faster than anything experienced so far in the pandemic.
“I am profoundly concerned by the scale and immediacy of the challenge it poses.”
It came as Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, told MPs at Westminster’s health and social care committee that the sheer pace of transmission associated with Omicron could lead to daily hospitalisations with the virus to exceed the UK-wide peak of 4,583 on January 12 this year, when the Alpha variant was spreading rapidly.
He said: “Even if it is milder, because it is concentrated over a short period of time, you could end up with a higher number than that going into hospital on a single day. That is entirely possible.”
Prof Whitty added that pressure on hospitals would be exacerbated by a simultaneous influx of patients at a time when the virus is also driving an increase in NHS staff absences.
He added: “The numbers in hospital over a short period could be very high indeed. This will be happening at a time when a very significant number of staff are going to be off ill, isolating or caring.
“So you’re going to have both a reduction in supply and an increase in demand in the health service over a very short time period, and that really is the reason why we’re all taking this extremely seriously.”
Earlier this week Scots were urged to minimise their social contacts and limit interactions to a maximum of three households at once in a bid to curb infections. New guidance also comes into forced from today setting out mitigations which should be adopted in retail and hospitality venues.
Pubs and restaurants are “strongly encouraged” to reinstate table service only to reduce crowding around bar areas, and operators are also urged to have customers order food and drink via apps.
The use of screens between tables and at service points “should also be considered” along with voluntary caps on capacity inside venues “where appropriate”.
However, the Government guidance states that “it is for each premises to determine what is practical and operationally possible for their setting in what is a diverse sector”.
Shops and supermarkets, meanwhile, have been told to bring back one-way systems with separate entrances and exits where possible to manage the flow of customers, and have floor markings and queue management systems in place to keep people apart. Queuing inside premises “should be avoided where possible” and screens used to create a physical barrier between people at till points and self-service checkouts.
However, in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Ms Sturgeon urged the UK Government to either reinstate the furlough scheme or give the devolved administrations the means to set up similar initiatives of their own.
She warned that “restrictions on the operation of higher-risk settings, while of course undesirable, may now be unavoidable”, with UK-wide Covid cases spiralling to a new record high of 88,376 yesterday.
The First Minister had previously indicated that the Scottish Government would have gone further with restrictions if funding were available to support businesses.
Ms Sturgeon added: “If left unchecked, Omicron will deliver a significant economic shock that will see lack of staff and pressure on already stressed supply chains lead directly to business failure. Frankly, if we do not get Omicron under control we are sacrificing the economic recovery we all want to see.
“If the Treasury does not provide financial compensation and protection, this result becomes all but inevitable.”
Hospitality firms in Scotland say they have already taken a £1 billion hit because of advice to cancel work Christmas parties, while bars and restaurants say the effect of guidance to limit social interactions could be “devastating”.
A UK Government spokeswoman said the Treasury had “given the devolved administrations the certainty they need to spend more money in the coming weeks”, and would continue to engage with them.
The Scottish Government has ringfenced £100m to help support businesses adversely affected by current guidance on Omicron, but Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said there is “still no word on when struggling small businesses will get the funding they desperately need to survive this difficult period”.
Business leaders have also warned that the £100m will be nowhere near enough to compensate them for their losses.
Some scientists have called for temporary closures of potential “superspreader” venues such as nightclubs and concert halls, while Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist from the Queen Mary University of London, said a short “circuit breaker” lockdown is now needed to protect the NHS.
She said: “I would be putting in a circuit breaker now. I know I’m going to be unpopular for saying this and I don’t think it was inevitable before.
“But the fact is we’ve gone into an Omicron wave where 50,000 cases a day, no capacity in our healthcare system, and I’m seriously concerned that in the next few weeks people who need life saving emergency care won’t be able to get it by January.”
Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf rejected the idea, saying the Government has to “balance harms” including on mental health, the economy and disruption to schooling.