Richard North, 24/12/2021  

To no-one's surprise at all, reports of the analysis conducted for the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows that omicron is up to 70 percent less likely to cause hospitalisation.

This is very much in line with findings reported yesterday, and in particular the South African data, providing firm evidence of the reduced threat from the omicron variant.

Such news is clearly unwelcome to the likes of the Guardian, which immediately conveyed warnings from the SAGE that the new variant would have to be about 90 percent less severe for hospital admissions not to reach previous peak levels, "unless the wave peaks early for other reasons".

In many respects though, the arguments are getting utterly tedious as they move from being primarily medical into the political domain, with the added piquancy of showing up policy differences between Whitehall and the devolved administrations.

This leaves the BBC attempting to drum up business for the medics by retailing warnings that "half of colds will be Covid", and urging those with sniffles to get tested.

If anything, though, this rather confirms the predictions last September from professor Dame Sarah Gilbert and Sir John Bell.

Both these luminaries then declared that coronavirus would eventually cause illness which were as mild as a common cold, thus playing down fears of a more deadly variant. Their view then was that the UK was "over the worst". The only thing this pair seem to have got wrong is the timing. In a figurative sense, Christmas seems to have come early, leaving the wibblers struggling to reactivate the crisis element of the epidemic, ramping up the tales of woe in order to keep the scare dynamic alive.

Thus we have the Guardian making the best out of a bad job, after having predicted back in September that we would see a surge in cold infections in the autumn. Now it has to be content with grudgingly acknowledging the "good news" that Omicron "may" be less severe while immediately cautioning that it is "surging faster".

The paper simply can't help itself, qualifying the effectively definitive evidence about reduced virulence with the tentative "may", then going on to tell us that a smaller proportion of people hospitalised with the Covid variant "means little when rise in infections is so huge".

As always, the paper is conflating the official nomenclature of "people tested positive" with "infections". It is thereby discounting the fact that so many Covid-positive results represent the ranks of the asymptomatic or those with such mild symptoms that they need to test to confirm that they've been ill – all of whom require minimal (of any) medical intervention.

Furthermore, the "huge rise" in the figures pans out to 119,789 positives reported yesterday, bringing the seven-day total to 678,165 – up 53 percent on the previous week, well short of the panic predictions that the case rate was set to double every two days.

Sadly for the likes of the Guardian, neither are the ranks of the dead performing to specification. The daily toll for yesterday was 147, with the total for the last seven days at 784, down 2.4 percent on the previous week.

Even the hospital admission figures are failing to deliver, providing little consolation to the naysayers. The latest figures are of 19 December, standing at 1,004. The seven-day figure comes to 6,299 – up a disappointing 4.4 percent, the highest burden (over 40 percent) still to be found in "diverse" London, to coincide with the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Deflating still further the sense of crisis, the Telegraph offers the inconvenient information that "one in three Covid patients may have caught virus in hospital", apparently ramping up the nosocomial infection rate to above the expected rate for NHS hospitals, although not beating a Chinese report which admitted to 44 percent.

The Telegraph figures seem to apply to London, with the paper telling us that 31 percent of Covid patients included in the NHS daily admission figures for London had already been in the hospital for more than a week before testing positive, suggesting transmission had occurred on the ward.

Separate figures show that of more than 6,000 patients in hospitals across England who have tested positive for coronavirus, 29 percent of them were primarily being treated for other conditions. Of those that die, these will be reported as Covid-related deaths, adding to the unreality of the official statistics.

Even with the added-value of the hospital infections, though, things are still not going well for the Guardianistas. Via the Mail, we learn that the "ground zero" for omicron, the Gauteng province in South Africa, has experienced a significant drop in its seven-day average for Covid cases, down from 10,400 to 4,088 over the last two weeks. Hospitalisations in the province have also fallen 34 percent in a week from 596 to 392 admissions a day.

And while naysayers have been keen to discount (or downplay) South African experiences, there are indications that something similar is beginning to happen over here, with a report that the rate of increase is slowing in London and six English regions.

The crisis may be ending, almost before it has got properly started, with the Evening Standard noting that the Covid figures in London – where nearly 90 percent of cases are omicron - for the past three days have been lower than the previous three days.

An optimistic Telegraph, therefore, is suggesting that the New Year's Eve celebrations in England (Sadiq Khan notwithstanding) are likely to escape new curbs, leaving the devolved administrations high and dry, with Mark Drakeford in Wales taking flak for claiming that omicron is "probably" as severe as delta. Sturgeon's day is yet to come.

Politically, unless the disease takes a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse, the tide is probably turning and it would appear that some of Johnson's Teflon has survived the last few weeks. His own impotence has saved the day, gainsaying Martin Kettle's downbeat evaluation.

With Starmer having swallowed the Ferguson hype and called for tougher controls, the prime minister might be able to enjoy a more comfortable Christmas than many expected – providing Putin doesn't kick-off – proving the truth once again of the cliché, that a week is a long time in politics.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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