Shoppers on Oxford Street in central London on December 24, 2021. The number of people visiting London's major shopping district was down by almost a fifth on the last weekend before Christmas compared with pre-pandemic levels, a further sign of the toll the spread of the omicron variant is taking on beleaguered UK stores. Image Credit: Bloomberg

London: Boris Johnson urged Britons to take care at Christmas as he considers whether to tighten pandemic regulations, as government data indicated about 10% of Londoners were infected with COVID-19.

An estimated 1 in 25 people across England - more than 2 million people - had COVID-19 on December 19, according to Office for National Statistics modeling released Friday that also showed about 1 in 10 Londoners were infected as the fast-spreading omicron variant takes hold. A record 119,789 new confirmed Covid-19 cases were logged Thursday, while minutes of a meeting of Johnson’s scientific advisers said omicron hospitalizations are doubling every 4 to 5 days.

“As infections move into older age groups, a large wave of hospital admissions should be expected,” the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said. “Such a wave should be expected soon given infections are increasing rapidly in all age groups and regions, and earlier in London.”

Johnson has already introduced new light-touch restrictions to try to limit the spread of omicron. He’s said he won’t do more before Christmas, while warning further measures are possible after the holiday - a move that would likely anger rebels in his ruling Conservative Party.

“We must test ourselves and take extra care when meeting elderly or vulnerable relatives,” Johnson said Friday in his Christmas message to the nation, in which he also urged people to get their vaccine boosters. “We know that things remain difficult.”

While the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already detailed new curbs that will come in after Christmas, Johnson doesn’t plan any announcements until after December 25.

But the steep rise infections will add weight to the argument of his scientific advisers, who say the sooner he clamps down on household mixing and indoor hospitality, the more he can ease pressure on the National Health Service.

Critical time

“Interventions to reduce transmission that are started well before the wave of infections in older people is well underway will make a significant difference to the size of the overall peak in hospitalizations,” SAGE said in the minutes of its Dec. 23 meeting. “Interventions after this point will be too late to make a significant difference to the number of infections, hospitalizations, or deaths.”

In more positive news, the U.K. Health Security Agency reported Thursday that patients with omicron are 50% to 70% less likely to be hospitalized, compared with the previously dominant delta strain.

Still, the agency warned the highly infectious nature of the variant could still lead to significant numbers of severe illness that squeeze the health service. It also said data showed that the effectiveness of booster vaccines wanes more rapidly against omicron than delta.

While the findings offer a “glimmer of Christmas hope,” there’s still not enough data to downgrade the level of threat, Jenny Harries, the agency’s chief executive officer, told BBC radio on Friday.

“Critically what we’re seeing is omicron largely in young people and it’s only just now that cases are starting to tip over into the older population,” she said. “I don’t think we do know yet that this is going to be a significantly less serious disease for the older population that we’re normally most concerned about.”