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International passengers walk through the arrivals area at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport on Nov. 26 in London, EnglandLeon’s iPhone/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared an Omicron emergency and pledged to offer every adult in England a vaccine booster shot by the end of the month in order to combat the spread of the highly infectious COVID-19 variant.

“No one should be in any doubt, there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming,” Mr. Johnson said in a televised address on Sunday. “We must urgently reinforce our wall of vaccine protection to keep our friends and loved ones safe.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Johnson promised to offer each adult in England a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of January. But on Sunday, he said the rapid spread of the new variant compelled him to move the date forward. He added that governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also accelerate their booster-shot programs.

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Britain has recorded 3,137 cases of Omicron, but scientists say the actual figure is likely far higher. Researchers at the UK Health Security Agency and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, or LSHTM, said that the number of infections from the variant are doubling every 2.4 days and that the mutation will be the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.K. within weeks.

The government is worried that a surge in cases could overwhelm hospitals, which are already stretched with seasonal illnesses. The country has been grappling with high numbers of Delta-variant infections, which were running at around 50,000 a day last week.

On Saturday, researchers at the LSHTM released a series of scenarios based on the likely spread of the virus. In the best-case scenario, in which vaccines work well against Omicron and booster shot uptake is high, the variant would still result in 2,400 daily hospital admissions over the next five months, according to the modelling. That’s roughly three times higher than the current rate of daily admissions for COVID-19.

Under the most pessimistic model, in which vaccines are assumed to be less effective, hospitalizations could climb as high as 6,000 a day, roughly twice the level seen during the peak of the pandemic last January.

“Our projections are worrying,” said Nicholas Davies, an assistant professor of mathematical modelling at the LSHTM. “I’m worried. I’m about as worried as I was at the time of the Alpha variant last year.” He added that all of the scenarios developed by the researchers projected higher waves of infections than during the peak of the pandemic.

The Alpha variant, first detected in the U.K. in November, 2020, spread quickly last winter and forced the government to impose a near total lockdown the following month. That variant has been overtaken by the more transmissible Delta mutation, which is now giving way to Omicron. Dr. Davies said there was some room to be optimistic because the country now has vaccines, and he cited a recent study by the Health Security Agency that found a third vaccine dose provided up to 75 per cent protection against Omicron.

On Sunday, Mr. Johnson acknowledged that offering booster shots to all adults will be a mammoth undertaking. To meet the new target, the government said the National Health Service will have to administer around one million shots a day until Dec. 31, which is roughly twice the current number of daily shots. The NHS will be assisted by 42 military planning teams and a program to train thousands of volunteer vaccinators.

“Every adult in the country now needs to get a COVID-19 booster vaccine, because two doses of the vaccine is not enough to give the level of protection against infection we all need,” Mr. Johnson said.

The Prime Minister did not announce any new restrictions on socializing or movement. Last week, the government tightened some COVID-19 rules in England. It is now urging people to work from home, requiring face masks in most public places and introducing vaccine passports at nightclubs and large indoor venues. Many health experts have said the measures don’t go far enough and that the government may have to impose further restrictions this month.

Mr. Johnson has indicated that Britain could soon drop its ban on foreign travellers from 11 African countries, including South Africa, where Omicron was first detected. Scientists have said the ban is irrelevant now that Omicron has spread so quickly across the U.K. Passengers arriving from those countries may still have to quarantine, but not at government-approved hotels.

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