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What nurses need to know about the Omicron variant of COVID-19

Front-line healthcare workers facing greater pressure with expansion of booster jab programme and potential rise in hospitalisations due to new variant
Picture shows a test kit with Omicron written on the label

Front-line healthcare workers facing greater pressure with expansion of booster jab programme and potential rise in hospitalisations due to new variant

This article was updated on 2 December

Cases of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron have been detected in England and Scotland, with officials warning numbers could continue to rise across the UK.

Here’s what nurses need to know as the government tightens restrictions in response.

Booster programme expanded

The government has ramped up the COVID-19 booster programme, with jabs to be offered to all over-18s in the UK by the end of January, following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

The committee also said the maximum gap

Front-line healthcare workers facing greater pressure with expansion of booster jab programme and potential rise in hospitalisations due to new variant

This article was updated on 2 December

Picture shows a test kit with Omicron written on the label
Picture: iStock

Cases of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron have been detected in England and Scotland, with officials warning numbers could continue to rise across the UK.

Here’s what nurses need to know as the government tightens restrictions in response.

Booster programme expanded

The government has ramped up the COVID-19 booster programme, with jabs to be offered to all over-18s in the UK by the end of January, following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

The committee also said the maximum gap between the second dose and a booster vaccination should be reduced from six months to three. This means an additional 14 million adults are now eligible for their booster.

Boosters will be offered to people by age group in five-year bands, starting with older people and those who are clinically vulnerable.

Speaking at a Downing Street news conference on 30 November, prime minister Boris Johnson said the government would ‘throw every effort’ at expanding the COVID-19 booster programme. This includes setting up extra hospital hubs, temporary vaccination centres and more than 1,500 community pharmacy sites offering the jabs.

NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said operational guidance to manage the expanded programme will be published in the coming days.

How will nurses be affected by these changes?

The expansion of the booster vaccination programme will ultimately lead to greater pressure on front-line workers, with concerns there are not enough staff to deliver the programme. Added to this is a risk of increased hospitalisations due to Omicron.

Chair of RCN council Carol Popplestone said NHS staff should receive additional support to help deliver an expanded booster programme.

‘It must be recognised that health and social care staff, who are already under huge pressure and working way beyond their capacity, are being expected to step up yet again,’ she said. ‘While those staff will no doubt rise to the challenge, many will be asking what more is being done now to support them given the huge pressures they are under.’

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said Omicron has come at a time when the NHS is ‘under unprecedented pressure’. ‘If the number of COVID-19 patients increases, such as when it went up to 34,000 people in January last year, then this pressure will continue to grow,’ he said.

On 30 November, facemasks became mandatory on public transport and shops in England as part of government plans to reduce the spread of the new variant.

Why is Omicron a ‘variant of concern’?

The World Health Organization (WHO) labelled Omicron a ‘variant of concern’ due to it having several mutations that may affect how easily it spreads and the severity of illness it causes.

WHO said it is not yet clear if Omicron spreads more easily than other variants, such as Delta, or if it causes more severe symptoms, but preliminary evidence suggests there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, where the variant was first identified.

The variant has a ‘large number’ of mutations – around 50 – that can lead to increased risks of infection and spread.

Research is currently under way to determine if current vaccines are as effective against Omicron as against other forms of COVID-19.


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