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People walk across Westminster Bridge in London, U.K. on Dec. 15.HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

Britain has recorded the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began owing to a surge in the Omicron variant which health officials say now accounts for a majority of infections in London.

The U.K. reported 78,610 cases on Wednesday, up 32 per cent from Tuesday. The highest daily total until now had been on Jan. 8, 2021, when there were 68,053 cases in a single day.

The number of Omicron infections across the country jumped by 4,671 on Wednesday to just more than 10,000, according to the UK Health Security Agency. However, scientists say the actual figure is far higher and that infections are doubling every two days. So far, just 15 people with Omicron have been hospitalized in England, but officials said the number is rising steadily, particularly in London.

The variant “is probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic and I’m sure, for example, the numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we’ve seen in cases for previous variants,” Jenny Harries, the agency’s chief executive, told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.

Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical advisor, said that the U.K. was now facing a double jolt from the Delta and Omicron variants. “So what we’ve got is two epidemics on top of one another – an existing Delta epidemic, which is roughly flat, and a very rapidly growing Omicron epidemic on top of it,” he said during a televised press conference on Wednesday. “Records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks.”

Dr. Whitty added that hospitalization figures tend to lag the daily infection rate by a few weeks as infections rise. “There will be substantial numbers of hospital admissions,” he said. “This is a really serious threat at the moment – how big a threat, we don’t know, but the things we do know are bad.”

Modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have said that even in their best-case scenario, where vaccines work well against Omicron, hospital admissions were likely to rise fourfold by January.

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Dr. Whitty urged caution about reports out of South Africa that Omicron cases have been more mild than Delta. He said comparing data across countries was difficult. “There is more immunity in South Africa now than there was in their last wave,” he said, which could account for the fall in hospitalizations. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t some degree of slightly milder disease – that is possible – but I just think there’s a danger people have overinterpreted this to say, ‘What are we worrying about?’ I’m afraid to say this is going to be a problem.”

Even if Omicron was four times less likely to cause severe illness, infections are rising so fast that based on the current trajectory, the number of daily cases will rise eightfold within a week, said James Naismith, a professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford. An eightfold increase “would double the number of daily hospitalizations, even if four times milder,” Dr. Naismith added.

Despite the dire predictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ruled out imposing further restrictions on social contacts to slow the spread of the variant. Last week, the government introduced its “plan B,” which included tightening some measures, such as making face masks mandatory in most public places and introducing vaccine passports for nightclubs and large venues such as soccer stadiums.

On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson ruled out going further. Instead, he re-emphasised the government’s push to offer booster shots to every adult by the end of the month. “I think this is the right approach,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s absolutely vital that people get their booster now.”

Mr. Johnson has faced a backlash within his Conservative caucus over COVID-19 restrictions. On Tuesday, 100 Conservative members of Parliament voted against the measures announced by Mr. Johnson last week. The restrictions still received House of Commons approval, but only because the Opposition Labour Party voted in favour. Many Tory MPs have been angry about vaccine passports and allegations that officials in Mr. Johnson’s office held multiple Christmas parties last year when the country was under a near-total lockdown. Mr. Johnson has called for an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary into the parties, and has insisted that as far as he knows, no rules were broken.

“I do understand people’s feelings about what they see on infringements of liberty,” Mr. Johnson said Wednesday when asked about the Tory revolt. “We’ve been trying throughout this pandemic to keep our lives as open and as free as possible. The aim of plan B plus the Get Boosted Now campaign is to ensure next year is as free as possible and we protect our society and economy in every way that we can.”

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