Mark Drakeford has been accused of lying to the public by a former health statistics boss after he said omicron was “probably” just as severe as delta, despite three studies concluding the opposite.
Jamie Jenkins, the former head of health analysis at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), said that the Welsh First Minister had made an “untrue statement with the intent to deceive” as he scrambled to justify his coronavirus restrictions in the face of evidence that the latest Covid variant is milder.
On Wednesday, Mr Drakeford said he did not think it is “as simple as saying omicron is less serious than delta”.
“If you have been infected previously, it may be that it is a less severe attack,” he told a press conference.
“If you have never had coronavirus and you get omicron, the evidence is it is probably just as severe as any other form would be.”
His comments came despite new studies from the University of Edinburgh, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and a group of South African scientists, which all suggested that omicron produced less severe symptoms than delta, and was between 50 and 80 per cent less likely to hospitalise patients.
Mr Jenkins told The Telegraph that Mr Drakeford was “deceiving the Welsh public” to justify Wales’s latest coronavirus restrictions, which include £60 fines for employees who travel to the office when they could work from home, a limit of six people in groups at pubs or restaurants and the return of two-metre social distancing.
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He said that the Welsh Government appeared not to have firm evidence to support Mr Drakeford’s assertion that omicron was likely to be as severe as delta.
“I think the word ‘probably’ is a bit strange from the First Minister, because if you’re going to make statements to bring restrictions on businesses, you want more than ‘probably’,” he said.
“For him to say that the evidence is that it is ‘probably’ just as severe is just bizarre, because to say that, you have got to have some evidence, haven’t you?”
Mr Jenkins, who lives in Wales and formerly analysed health data at the ONS, added: “The definition of a lie is to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive. So [Mr Drakeford] can, of course, share the evidence to rebut any such accusations.
“But for me, if he’s got evidence to support what he said, then that’s fine. But if he hasn’t got any… if you’d look at the definition, it’s untrue. And by saying that at the press conference, it’s deceiving the Welsh public.
“I don’t like using the word ‘lie’ very often because people sometimes make mistakes. But it was in direct response to a question.”
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Research by the University of Edinburgh, presented to ministers, has concluded that the symptoms of omicron are likely to be far milder than delta, while booster vaccines will provide “substantial” extra protection against symptoms.
Real-world data analysed by the researchers concluded that patients with omicron are up to two-thirds less likely to be hospitalised.
Another study from the UKHSA is understood to have found that omicron cases are half as likely to require hospital treatment.
Scientists in South Africa, where the latest variant was first identified, have said that patients are 80 per cent less likely to go to hospital, and those in hospital are 70 per cent less likely to develop severe disease.
As a result of the findings, Downing Street has delayed any additional restrictions in the UK until after Christmas, with ministers pledging to wait for concrete evidence that omicron has the ability to overwhelm the NHS before asking MPs to approve new rules.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has also introduced tougher restrictions, limiting the size of outdoor public events and cancelling Hogmanay celebrations.
The Scottish First Minister said that the “much higher transmissibility of omicron means large gatherings have the potential to become very rapid super-spreader events”.
The Welsh Government has been approached for comment.