A record number of daily coronavirus cases have been reported across the UK for the second day running, with 88,376 infections confirmed on Thursday.
England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said the Omicron variant could rise “incredibly fast”, but its peak subside quickly due to boosters.
There was also a record for top-up vaccines with 745,183 third or booster doses being given on Wednesday.
Boris Johnson has urged people to use “caution” in the face of the variant.
But the prime minister insisted England was not being put into lockdown by stealth, after some of his own MPs had accused the government of putting hospitality under an “effective lockdown”.
Meanwhile, the Queen has cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas lunch as a precautionary measure amid the surge of the Omicron variant.
A further 146 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were reported on Thursday.
Daily cases were up from 78,610 on Wednesday, itself a record, and more than 30,000 up on last Thursday when 50,867 infections were reported.
Prof Whitty said the height of the Omicron wave may fall faster than previous Covid-19 peaks, although he said the upswing will be “incredibly fast”.
But he added that this was just a possibility and said the rate would slow down once people people had immunity either from boosters or Omicron infection.
Speaking to the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, he said that even with people acting cautiously the rise in Omicron cases would still be “very fast”.
But the booster programme was the route back to a “more normal track”, Prof Whitty said.
He also said it is likely that vaccines and antiviral drugs will do “almost all of the heavy lifting” when it comes to tackling future Covid variants.
Prof Whitty said “each six months will be better than the last six months” when it comes to fighting Covid.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief medical adviser Dr Susan Hopkins told MPs that there were now 15 people in hospital with the Omicron variant, but Prof Whitty said the “real number” will be “much bigger than that”.
While the reproduction value – rate at which a virus spreads – for Covid overall was 1-1.2, Dr Hopkins said, she estimated the Omicron R value was between 3 and 5.
The UKHSA said there were an additional 1,691 confirmed Omicron cases on Thursday, taking to the total number confirmed in the UK to 11,708. The true figure is likely to be higher.
In other developments:
- Interest rates have risen for the first time in three years despite fears Omicron could slow the economy
- Chancellor Rishi Sunak is cutting short a trip to the US for talks with businesses concerned about the impact of Omicron
- Pregnant women have been added to the UK’s priority list for a Covid vaccine
- France has tightened its Covid restrictions for travellers arriving from the UK in response to rising case numbers
- In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has warned that further restrictions on “high risk” sectors may be unavoidable
- The Welsh government cabinet has been meeting to consider what measures it will take in response to the spread of Omicron
- UK schools say they are prepared to switch to online learning next term if they have to in response to the rising cases
- Two more Premier League football matches have been cancelled because of Covid, including Manchester United’s tie with Brighton on Saturday.
The hospitality sector has called for support from government after suffering amid the rise in Covid cases, with fears about Omicron leading to bookings being cancelled.
The prime minister sad he was not telling the public to cancel events but Prof Whitty had suggested people should “prioritise” activities in the run up to Christmas.