Column by Dominic Harrison: Director of Public Health and Wellbeing, Blackburn with Darwen

WE expected Covid variants, the actions we need to take with this new Omicron variant are known to us. We should not panic. 

Many local authority areas across the UK will inevitably get cases of Omicron over the next few months. As with the Delta variant, the first cases will be seeded importations from overseas travel. There will inevitably be community transmission from those first index cases. 

Previous experience suggests that early efforts to identify and isolate all cases and their contacts will be critical to slow down any associated transmission. In a globalised world, we will not stop Omicron from eventually being one of the Covid viruses circulating in the UK. 

So what are the risks, what should we be doing now, and how might it affect Christmas?

There are four issues we need to consider: is it more infectious than the current variant; is it more likely to hospitalise or kill us; is it more likely to escape our current vaccines; is it likely to evade the current treatments, if we are hospitalised?

We currently have varying amounts of certainty on each of these questions. At the moment, it does look like Omicron is more transmissible than Delta. ; there are no strong signals at this time that it is more likely to hospitalise or kill us; there is some concern that it may be more successful at escaping vaccine protection but no evidence that the likelihood of death is increased; there is some concern that Omicron may make some, but not all, treatments for Covid less effective, but no strong evidence on this yet.

The uncertainty on the new variant arrives on top of a continuing rising wave of the Delta variant across the UK. The English Covid rate was up again over the last seven days and is now at 440 per 100,000. 

Blackburn with Darwen remains well below that, with a rate on Tuesday of 326 per 100,000. Ten to fourteen year olds have seen a particularly sharp rise in case rates over the last week, as has the rates for their parents’ age groups – indicating an increased risk of household transmission. 

In response, I think we now need to apply some serious common sense. We all need to take up the new offers to get vaccinated and boosted, local authorities need to be ‘on it’ with case and contact tracing as soon as an Omicron case appears, supporting self-isolation and reducing the risks of community transmission. 

We need to wear masks everywhere in enclosed public spaces when moving around but could remove them when sat reasonably socially distanced e.g. at a work desk. 

We need, where we can, to reduce avoidable, but not important, social interaction – particularly in the workplace. If work can be done remotely, then do it remotely - but don’t stop seeing friends and family. We need to step up all the infection control measures we already know about - washing hands, regular lateral flow tests etc.

We do not need to cancel Christmas - but if we are planning a big gathering, we do need everyone to take a lateral flow test before they meet up; we do not need to ban nativity plays, but we do need to manage the risks at them, we do not need to avoid pubs, shops and restaurants, as long as they have everyone wearing masks when moving around, decent ventilation, sanitiser etc. 

We are all fed up with this - but we need to stop moaning about the fire alarm and attend to the fire. If we all take as much action as we can now to get vaccinated and prevent the spread of Covid, we stand the best chance possible of a happy Christmas.