The UK government on Sunday raised the country’s coronavirus alert level from three to four due to the rapid increase of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, recording another 1,239 cases to take the total to 3,137.

The alert level has been raised by the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) of all parts of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – on the advice of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

The CMOs said that early evidence shows that the new variant, first detected in South Africa, is spreading faster than the Delta variant with the first hospitalisations now underway.

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“Early evidence shows that Omicron is spreading much faster than Delta and that vaccine protection against symptomatic disease from Omicron is reduced. Data on the severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalisations from Omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly,” Professor Chris Whitty (England), Professor Sir Michael McBride (Northern Ireland), Professor Gregor Smith (Scotland), Dr Frank Atherton (Wales) and NHS England National Medical Director, Professor Stephen Powis, said in a joint statement.

“When vaccine protection is reduced in the way that is happening with Omicron it is essential to top up that protection with a booster. Both booster vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) increase the immune response substantially and show good effectiveness although with some reduction compared to Delta,” they said.

The UK’s coronavirus risk levels are measured by a five-level alert system, based on the severity of transmission and corresponding social distance rules. Level four means a high or rising level of transmission, with some requirement of social distancing rules to manage the spread.

Also read: Explainer: Vaccine inequity and the entry of Omicron

The UK has been at level three for the past few months, indicating general circulation and lower level of restrictions, and was at level four last in May. The latest alert comes as the National Health Service (NHS) booster programme opens for bookings to all those aged 30 and over from Monday.