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    As Britain’s Omicron cases surge, London moves to help hospitals

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    People queue for a booster dose outside a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pop-up vaccination centre at Chelsea football ground, Stamford Bridge in London, Britain, December 18, 2021.— Reuters/File
    • Total number of cases in UK of the fast-spreading Omicron variant jumps sharply to almost 25,000.
    • London Mayor Sadiq Khan says health worker absences had also increased. 
    • Omicron variant is estimated to account for more than 80% of new COVID-19 cases in London.

    LONDON: Britain reported a surge in cases of the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant on Saturday, and London’s mayor declared a “major incident” to help the capital’s hospitals following a sharp rise in COVID-19 admissions.

    The total number of Omicron cases recorded across the country hit almost 25,000 on Friday, up by more than 10,000 cases from 24 hours earlier, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said in its latest data.

    Seven people believed to have had the Omicron variant had died as of Thursday, up from one death in the UKHSA’s previous data which ran up to Tuesday. Hospitalisations of people thought to have the variant increased to 85 from 65.

    London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” — which allows for closer coordination between different public agencies and possibly more central government support — as COVID-19 hospital admissions in the city rose by nearly 30% this week.

    He said health worker absences had also increased.

    “I’ve taken the decision, in consultation with our partners, to declare a major incident today,” Khan said during a visit to Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club which is being used as a mass vaccination centre.

    “This is a statement of how serious things are,” he said.

    Khan, from the opposition Labour Party, also declared a major incident in January, when rising COVID-19 cases threatened to overwhelm hospitals.

    The Omicron variant is estimated to account for more than 80% of new COVID-19 cases in London, officials said on Friday.

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to chair an emergency committee meeting over the weekend with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have their own powers over public health.

    Sky News said government ministers were being briefed on the latest coronavirus data on Saturday.

    The Times newspaper reported that officials were preparing to draft new rules that, if introduced, would ban indoor mixing in England except for work for two weeks after Christmas when pubs and restaurants would be limited to table service outdoors.

    People would be able to meet in groups of up to six outdoors, the newspaper said.

    But ministers were yet to formally consider the plans, The Times said.

    Johnson said on Friday “we are not closing things down”.

    A government spokesperson, asked about The Times report, said the government would continue to “look closely at all the emerging data and we’ll keep our measures under review as we learn more about this variant”.

    The total number of all new COVID-19 cases reported in official data edged down to 90,418 from a record high of more than 93,000 on Friday, but that was still the country’s second-highest daily toll. Figures typically dip at the weekend.

    Cases were up 44.4% over the seven days to December 18 compared with the previous week.

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