Addressing accusations of “scaremongering”, Dr David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation special envoy on Covid, on Wednesday night warned the Covid situation is “unprecedented” and that he has never been more concerned about the pandemic.
Yesterday’s Covid total in the UK is the highest figure announced since mass testing began in summer last year, and surpasses the previous record of January 8 when 68,053 new cases were reported.
Speaking to Sky News on Wednesday night, Dr Nabarro said: “I want to talk directly to the people who accuse us of scaremongering, I’ve spent 45 years doing this kind of work and my whole is to do everything possible to enable life to go on, to enable fun to go on, to enable love to go on.
"I want people to live their lives to the full and I would only be making remarks about how serious this is if I had a very good reason to do so. I am concerned. This is serious.
"For me, this is unprecedented. I don’t know how serious this is going to be but I really do appeal to everybody to please take what I say seriously.
"I’m not speaking with any political message, I’m not speaking with any ideological message. I’m just speaking as a public health doctor who is looking at the signs, listening to the experts and I think we have a pretty serious problem coming up in the coming weeks and it’s not just in the UK, it’s in many other countries.”
The latest covid figures were published after UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries warned the strain was “probably the most significant threat” since the start of the pandemic.
Scotland Deputy First Minister John Swinney said further coronavirus restrictions may “potentially” be needed before Christmas to curb the spread of Omicron in the wake of fresh guidelines published by the Scottish Government on Tuesday.
The record case numbers come as a new study reveals two thirds of patients who were hospitalised with coronavirus say they are not fully recovered a year later. Fatigue, muscle pain, poor sleep and breathlessness were found to be among the most common ongoing symptoms from the study.
Meanwhile England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said it was sensible for people to prioritise the social interactions that matter, especially in the run-up to Christmas.
He said “you don’t need a medical degree to realise that is a sensible thing to do with an incredibly infectious virus” as he urged others to take tests before visiting vulnerable people and to meet in areas of good ventilation or outdoors if possible.
"I'm afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up,” he said.
“What we’ve got is two epidemics on top of one another – an existing Delta epidemic, roughly flat, and a very rapidly growing Omicron epidemic on top of it.”
Nicola Sturgeon said gatherings should be limited to no more than three households, with this advice coming after people were told to cancel work Christmas parties.
But Mr Swinney sounded a further warning yesterday as he said the guidance announced on Tuesday was expected to be in place over Hogmanay and into the new year.
When asked if more restrictions could be put in place before Christmas, he told BBC’s Good Morning Scotland: “Potentially that could be the case, but we want to avoid that.
“We hope we have done enough in the announcements that were made … and we hope members of the public and businesses will work with us in a co-operative spirit to make sure we can take these provisions forward.”
With Omicron now “spreading at a very alarming rate”, Mr Swinney urged people keep social activities “in balance”.
He said: “People aren’t going to the pantomime every night, they are going to the pantomime once over the Christmas period and people will be looking forward to that.
“We’re saying go ahead with that safely, but try to then temper the amount of social interaction you have with multiple households on other occasions.”
There were 4,252 possible cases of the Omicron variant in Scotland as of December 12, Public Health Scotland has reported.
This includes confirmed and suspected cases.
Cases are more than ten times higher than the previous week and PHS estimates a doubling time of just over two days in Scotland.
Some 1,285 possible cases have been recorded in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, while 956 have been reported in Lothian.
A handful of cases have been identified in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. The figures were published as as another expert warned meeting with three households was “not safe”, following the publication of Scottish Government guidance.
Professor Sally Bloomfield, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said while the Government’s new guidance was “appropriate”, the public must not forget that gatherings of any size constitute a risk of Covid spread.
Prof Bloomfield said mixing with fewer than three households at a time will help reduce the virus spread and may avoid the need for lockdown in January.
Responding to the new Scottish Government guidance, she said: “We have to understand the basics, which is that the virus is spread from person to person, which means the more different people we meet with, the greater the chance we will mix with someone who is infected and infectious – and become infected ourselves; and equally important, then pass it on to yet another person.”
Prof Bloomfield added: “We have a tendency to assume that if the Government tells us that it is OK for us to mix with three households, that means it is safe for us to mix with three households.
“We fail to realise that it is not safe at all. We are taking a calculated risk whenever we meet with another person.
“But the Government also realise that we have a human need to take this risk and meet with people. So, three households would seem appropriate guidance – in that it allows us to the option to spend time with those who are really important to us, or who need our care and companionship at this time, which is hard for a lot of people.
"If it works out at less than three households, this will help to reduce the spread and avoid need for lockdowns in January, which is equally important to us and the NHS.”
Prof James Chalmers, chair of respiratory research at Dundee University, said he believed new measures may be required over the festive period.
“The modelling looks like, in the worst-case scenario, we could have a really difficult winter and we can’t allow the health service to be overwhelmed,” he told the BBC.
“We need to be prepared and we need to prepare the public that we may require further restrictions.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was absolutely vital that everyone received a booster jab as he said a “great national fightback has begun” against Omicron.
He insisted the UK Government’s Plan B was the right thing to do, adding that boosters also “provide an excellent level of protection”.
Mr Johnson said: “We think that, given the balance of risks and the balance of continuing uncertainties about Omicron, this is the right approach to take ... to do these things at once.
“The progress we are making with the booster is vital … we really are boosting huge numbers of people now.”
The PM added: "I'm afraid we're also seeing the inevitable increase in hospitalisations up by 10 per cent nationally, week on week, and up by almost a third in London," he said.
Prof Whitty said that “all the things that we do know [about Omicron] are bad”.
He said: “This is a really serious threat at the moment. How big a threat? There are several things we don’t know. But all the things that we do know are bad and the principal one being the speed at which this is moving, it is moving at an absolutely phenomenal pace.
“Therefore between the time that it first starts to really take off in a way people will be able to see and the point when we get to very, very, very large numbers will be quite a short one, and that, I think, is part of the issue in trying to deal with this.”