Omicron Could Outpace Delta Variant in U.K. Within Days, Adults Line Up for COVID Boosters

Long lines for the COVID-19 vaccine began popping up in the U.K. Monday following a Sunday night announcement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlining a target for all eligible adults to get the booster by the end of the year.

This announcement comes as Omicron cases are surging across the country; health officials reporting cases are doubling every two to three days. Omicron is set to soon overtake the Delta variant as the U.K.'s leading coronavirus strain.

Though the December 31 goal only applies to England, Johnson stressed that all parts of the U.K. should speed up their booster rollout.

Johnson said Monday that the U.K. recently confirmed its first Omicron death, and 10 are currently hospitalized with the variant.

Though over 80 percent of British residents over the age of 12 have received two vaccine doses, only about 40 percent have gotten a booster. Giving everyone over the age of 18 a booster by the December 31 goal would require over one million shots administered per day.

Johnson said this goal could be possible if other "routine" medical procedures are postponed. About 750 soldiers and volunteers will also help vaccinate individuals across the country.

"I think the idea that (Omicron) is somehow a milder version of the virus, I think that's something we need to set on one side and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population," Johnson said while visiting a London vaccination center. "So the best thing we can do is all get our boosters."

Manchester, United Kingdom, COVID-19 vaccine
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says that Britain faces a "tidal wave" of infections from the Omicron coronavirus variant, and he has announced a huge increase in booster vaccinations to strengthen defenses against it. Above, people line up outside a vaccination center in Manchester, England, December 13, 2021. Jon Super/AP Photo

Johnson said boosters would "reinforce our wall of vaccine protection" against an anticipated "tidal wave of Omicron." The British government raised the country's official coronavirus threat level on Sunday, warning that the rapid spread of Omicron "adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and health care services."

Scientists in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, say they see signs the variant may cause less severe disease than Delta but caution that it's too soon to be certain. Health authorities around the world are watching Britain closely to see what an Omicron surge looks like in a country with an older, more highly vaccinated population than South Africa's.

The U.K. Health Security Agency says existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to Omicron, though effectiveness appears to rise to between 70 percent and 75 percent after a third dose.

While the online appointment booking system will not be open to under-30s until Wednesday, Johnson said any adult could show up at a walk-in center to get a booster starting Monday.

Lines built up at big London vaccination clinics on Monday morning. The line for shots at St. Thomas' Hospital, on the south bank of the River Thames in London, stretched across Westminster Bridge toward Parliament. At many clinics, people queued patiently despite being told they faced a wait of several hours.

The government's appointment-booking website struggled to keep up with demand, and also ran out of rapid at-home virus test kits, which have been distributed free to households during the pandemic. The website where tests can be ordered said none were available Monday. Starting Wednesday, people in England must show proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter nightclubs and other crowded venues.

While Omicron is spreading around the world, Britain may be especially affected because it ordinarily has high levels of travel to South Africa. The Omicron outbreak is also more visible because U.K. is also a world leader in genomic sequencing, the technique used to identify and track new variants.

Johnson's Conservative government is bringing in vaccine certificates for nightclubs and reintroducing restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must once again be worn in most indoor settings and as of Monday, people were urged to work from home if possible.

Many scientists say those measures are unlikely to be enough and are calling for tougher ones. But cafes, pubs and shops in city centers fear that plummeting commuter numbers will hammer business in the usually busy pre-Christmas period.

Robert Read, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Southampton, said it was still unclear how severe cases of COVID-19 from Omicron would be, but "the evidence is that Omicron probably requires much larger amounts of antibody in the blood in order to thwart the virus as much as possible."

"We need to get those third doses into as many adults as we possibly can, just in case this virus turns out to be a raging bull rather than a pussy cat," Read told radio station LBC.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Boris Johnson, London, COVID-19 vaccine
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a December 31 goal to offer all adults 18 and older in England the COVID-19 booster shot. Above, Johnson visits Stow Health Vaccination center, in Westminster, London, December 13, 2021. Jeremy Selwyn/Pool Photo via AP