Updated Dec 12, 2021 - World

U.K. raises COVID alert following surge in Omicron cases

Photo by Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

People wear masks on a street in London. Photo: Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.K. government on Sunday raised its official coronavirus alert level, citing an increase in cases largely driven by the Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The country first detected the new strain late last month in two travelers returning from Southern Africa. In response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reintroduced COVID-related restrictions to curb infections.

The big picture: Johnson warned during a briefing Sunday evening that "there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming."

  • The prime minister announced that everyone in England over the age of 18 will be able to sign up for a booster beginning on Monday.
  • "From tomorrow, in England, we're opening up the booster to every adult over 18 who's had a second dose of the vaccine at least 3 months ago," Johnson said, adding: "The NHS booking system will be open for these younger age groups from Wednesday, and that's the best way to guarantee your slot, but in some places, you can walk in from tomorrow."
  • Johnson also said his government will help with accelerating vaccinations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Earlier this week, the U.K. published a report that estimated that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are only about 30% effective against symptomatic infection with Omicron, and the AstraZeneca vaccine isn't effective at all.

  • U.K. health officials reiterated that people should continue to take "sensible precautions," adding that it is "extremely important" to receive the COVID vaccine.

What they're saying: "Early evidence shows that Omicron is spreading much faster than Delta," the Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement.

  • "Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalisations from Omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly," it continued.
  • "When vaccine protection is reduced in the way that is happening with Omicron it is essential to top up that protection with a booster."
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