LONDON: At least one person has died in the United Kingdom after contracting the Omicron coronavirus variant, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday, the first publicly confirmed death globally from the swiftly spreading strain.

Since the first Omicron cases were detected on Nov 27 in the United Kingdom, Johnson has imposed tougher restrictions and on Sunday cautioned that the variant could overcome the immune defences of those inoculated with two shots of vaccines.

Britain gave no details on the death or whether the patient had been been vaccinated or had underlying health issues. Deaths from Omicron may have occurred in other countries but none has been publicly confirmed yet outside Britain.

“Sadly at least one patient has now been confirmed to have died with Omicron,” Johnson told reporters at a vaccination centre in London.

The variant now accounted for around 40pc of infections in the capital, he said.

“So I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus — I think that’s something we need to set on one side - and just recognise the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population.” Before the death was announced, Britain said 10 people had been hospitalised with the Omicron variant in various parts of England. Their ages ranged from 18 to 85 years and most had received two vaccination doses.

The UK Health Security Agency said Omicron — first detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong in late November — can overcome the immunity of those who have had two shots of vaccines such as AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech .

South Africa’s health ministry said it was unable to say with certainty if any of its Covid-19 deaths were caused by Omicron as deaths were not broken down by variant.

Johnson, who is grappling with a rebellion in his party over measures to curb Omicron and an outcry over parties at his Downing Street office during last year’s lockdowns, said people should rush to get booster vaccines to protect “our freedoms and our way of life”.

After Covid-19 was first detected in China in late 2019, he faced criticism for initially resisting lockdown.

He has also been criticised for overseeing mistakes in transferring patients into care homes, and for building a costly test-and-trace system that failed to stop a deadly second wave.

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2021

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