The guddle of UK politics, policy and science is starkly revealed this week. When faced with rapidly rising Omicron cases, three countries adopted additional precautionary Covid policies based on prevention and practical actions underpinned by science.

England, however, has failed to act in a similar way and remains out of step with much of Europe too.

This was because the UK Government seemingly viewed the rising – but lower than expected – serious Covid hospitalisations and patient numbers on ventilators as a reason for not taking “premature” public health action, exactly at a time when England experienced, and continues to experience, rapidly increasing Covid cases.

Important epidemiological and clinical information on the effects of the Omicron variant is still lacking. Little is known about Omicron and its correlation with long Covid.

However, all Covid variants can be transmitted by “aerosols” and droplets – and we know how transmission in community settings and workplaces can be driven down or prevented.

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We also know that England had, by far, the highest Covid weekly case rate up to Christmas Eve – almost 1000 cases per 100,000 of the population followed by Northern Ireland (774), Scotland (743) and Wales (702).

Over the Christmas period, very significant jumps in Covid daily case numbers then occurred in the two countries that have published figures thus far.

Omicron may not be doubling every two or three days but it is certainly increasing very rapidly.

This is why health workers and virologists in England are concerned not only about the impacts of this on NHS care, but also on NHS staff.

Outwith England, there is already additional evidence available that Omicron has increased key worker absences among transport, public service, food, and retail services – all critical to a functioning economy and society.

The National:

Omicron may produce less severe symptoms than Delta, and fewer hospitalisations, but its effects can still be devastating. Vaccines and boosters can reduce but not prevent these impacts and vaccine hesitancy may lead to yet more dangerous variants emerging.

These are all additional reasons why Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are now taking additional Covid preventive measures and advocating greater caution. These are linked for example to social distancing, public and private gatherings, and mixing to reduce transmission.

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It also explains why Scotland’s Covid policies, although not perfect, continued to maintain several preventive measures during the latter part of 2021, when England had already abandoned many of these precautionary measures relating to social distancing, mask-wearing, and working from home.

There are suggestions voluntary compliance in England with its advice on Covid preventive measures is high. Evidence indicates this is not the case in many parts, such as the hospitality sector in Northwest and Northeast England.

Scotland therefore faces the additional problems of confused UK Government messaging and dangerously complacent UK Covid public health policies in the New Year, which will surely affect its own public health policies and practices. Mechanisms to address this and ensure zero tolerance of Covid wherever possible will now be urgently required to limit if not prevent that damage.

Professor Andrew Watterson is a public health researcher at the University of Stirling