Health officials said Friday that more than 93,000 people in the UK tested positive for the coronavirus in 24 hours as the rapidly spreading variant of Omicron puts pressure on a government that has resisted imposing tough restrictions ahead of Christmas.
The government said 93,045 cases were reported the previous day, the third consecutive day that the number of cases in the UK hit a record.
Officials said Omicron has eclipsed Delta as the dominant option in Scotland and has skyrocketed in many other regions of the UK, with infections doubling every two to three days in some locations.
While the impact on the country’s health care system is still unknown, officials have warned that the sheer number of cases could still be overwhelming. But the UK’s relatively high vaccination rate appears to limit serious illness and death.
Still, as the country experiences its second straight winter blighted by the virus, officials are refraining from ordering the weary public to cancel Christmas plans.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said at a press conference on Friday that the number of Omicron infections is growing “faster than anything previously seen during the pandemic.”
She added, “The tsunami that I warned about a week ago is now starting to hit us.”
But while she reiterated advice that people limit their social contact as much as possible and interact with no more than three households during the holiday season, Ms Sturgeon refrained from announcing tougher steps. She urged people not to lose hope because “we are in a much better position now than at this time last year because of the vaccinations.”
“Every booster put into someone’s hand is another brick in this protective wall,” said Ms. Sturgeon.
British officials are counting on vaccinations to stop the omicron wave, and the health system has significantly expanded the revaccination campaign, which now offers third shots to all adults. Health officials said Thursday that more than 626,000 people in England had received boosters in the previous 24 hours, a new record in one day.
However, according to government figures, less than 45 percent of people aged 12 and older received their third dose of the vaccine. The UK Health Safety Agency has warned that two doses of the vaccine are not enough to prevent Omicron’s disease.
In London, most of the major Christmas events took place without interruption, even as the virus threatened sports and the arts. Several English Premier League soccer games have been canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, and appearances in popular West End productions “The Lion King” and “Life of Pi” have been canceled after several cast and crew members tested positive.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed slightly stricter restrictions this week, including a plan to introduce a vaccine certification system for nightclubs and large indoor venues. But he did so despite objections from many within his Conservative Party, who are vehemently opposed to stricter measures.
Some experts said that by avoiding such moves in the run-up to Christmas, given how quickly Omicron is spreading, officials are at risk of infecting hundreds of thousands more.
“The time to act is early and any delay will make any action taken much less effective,” said Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London. “To protect all our freedoms and prosperity, we need to bring the virus under control.”
Wales health authorities this week also announced new restrictions that will begin on December 27, including the closure of nightclubs and mandatory social distancing of two meters, or about six feet, in offices and shops.
Calling Omicron the most serious problem in the pandemic to date, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford urged people not to gather in large groups during the holidays. “Little Christmas is a safer Christmas this year,” he told Sky News.
Drakeford added that while the Delta option remains dominant in Wales, where infections and hospitalizations remain stable, “we know the Omicron wave is brewing and that when it arrives in Wales it will grow very quickly and very steeply.”