Fraser Nelson

Vaccine passports may prove a pointless distraction from Omicron

Vaccine passports may prove a pointless distraction from Omicron
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Sajid Javid ditched vaccine passports when he became Health Secretary but he now has to bring them in again, albeit in an updated form where a lateral flow negative test will also be accepted. But how to get this past the Commons where 65 MPs have now decided to rebel? How to do this now given that the argument - that vaccine passports restrict transmissibility - has now collapsed? The big news is that the AstraZeneca vaccine has ‘zero’ effect on people catching Omicron. The vaccine still offers protection from getting seriously ill, but the premise of vaccine passports – that the double-jabbed are less likely to be infectious than the unjabbed – has just collapsed.

Things are moving so fast that vaccine passports may prove to be a pointless and relatively useless distraction from a far bigger point. If Omicron is half as likely to put you in hospital (this is regarded as an optimistic estimate by UK officials) that won't mean any less pressure on the NHS if there is more than twice as much of it about. Officials think Omicron has gone from 1pc to 30pc of London cases in a week, and it is rising exponentially with its R number at 4.0. Working from home will not have much effect on this: Sage estimates this cuts R by around 0.2 to 0.4. 

Needless to say, allowing Christmas parties is anomalous in view of the epidemiological situation being presented to ministers. But banning them may pose political difficulties for a Prime Minister up to his neck in scandal about parties held by his staff in No. 10 last year.

The latest official chart on vaccine efficacy is not easy to interpret but according to the UKHSA’s Meagan Khall it effectively means the effectiveness of a double AZ jab against catching Omicron is ‘zero’: quite a shocking result, especially for those double-jabbed with AZ who have not had their booster. Being double-jabbed with Pfizer offers the same protection against Omicron initially but it soon wanes to 30 per cent protection. The (Pfizer) booster increases this to 70 to 75 per cent, with the biggest effect coming within three days of the injection.

So those merely double-jabbed with AZ are rather exposed against Omicron. We’re talking about quite a lot of people. The below chart shows in red those with AZ (i.e. the majority of 40 to 75-year-olds).

This helps explain the government’s panic: a fast-spreading Omicron variant and UK reliance on AZ leaves a lot of people unprotected from acquiring and passing on Omicron (although they will be protected from serious illness). If you are double-jabbed with AZ and your local clinic has been leaving frantic messages inviting you for a booster, this may explain why.

Vaccine passports for mass events (a policy that flopped in Scotland) may soon be an irrelevance not just because of the now-collapsed logic, but because we may soon be back in lockdown. 

All kinds of Omicron scenarios – from the very good to the very bad – remain plausible. 

Very good scenario: Omicron is spreading, but who cares about case numbers? It's FAR milder then Delta, a sore throat, gone in days. So don't look at South African case numbers. Look at its empty ICUs. Omicron is spreading immunity, not death. There's nothing to fear!

Very bad scenario: Omicron is actually not much milder than Delta, and any mildness is anyway more than offset by its rampant transmissibility. Just look at London:  Omicron went from 1% to 30% of cases in a week. What Whitty calls our "wall of vaccinated people" isn't there - the alarming news is that AZ doesn't protect against Omicron infection. Our only hope is boosters. We need to buy time, but it takes two weeks for any policy change to have any effect. The next two weeks of Omicron 'doubling' are baked in: it's going to surge every day from now to Xmas, with hospitalisations ten days behind. So we should adopt the brace position now. We may soon regret all these Xmas parties and should perhaps lock down again until everyone's boosted. The Tory rebels getting all swivel-eyed over vaccine passports are so blinded by Boris hatred that they can't see the tsunami about to hit them. 

It will take a while before we know enough to see where the truth lies. But ministers are veering towards the ‘very bad’ scenario now, so more restrictions are likely.