Professor Angus Dalgleish
Professor Chris Whitty is often praised for his measured tones and his lack of melodrama.

But those qualities were absent when he spoke at the Downing Street Press conference on Wednesday evening.

Updating the nation on the Omicron variant, Whitty's words were the equivalent of pressing a giant panic button.

'Don't mix with people you don't have to,' he told the public, warning that Omicron was spreading at 'an absolutely phenomenal rate' and is 'a really serious threat'.

These words have had a colossal impact, plunging our country into yet another crisis with dire implications for businesses and individuals.

Indeed, Scrooge himself could not have done a better job of wrecking the festive season.

The Prime Minister has talked of giving Whitty a knighthood — but after that reckless and irresponsible performance, the Chief Medical Officer deserves the boot.

At a stroke, he inflicted spectacular damage on our economy, particularly the hospitality sector which makes over a quarter of its profits in this period, and which has already taken a tremendous battering during the pandemic.

Now, thanks to the mood of manufactured hysteria over Omicron, it is in for another hammering as plans for gatherings are abandoned.

As top chef Tom Kerridge revealed in this paper on Thursday, one of his restaurants suffered more than 650 cancellations in just six days.

Fellow chefs have 'lost 50 per cent of their bookings in the past week' thanks to 'ill-thought out, spur-of-the-moment' decisions that have devastated a trade that employs more than three million people,' he wrote.

Indeed many have thrown in the towel and closed until January. Some will never open again.

And as for the impact on their suppliers — the fruit, veg and dairy producers, and alcohol industry — the effect may well prove catastrophic for numerous smaller firms.

The travel industry has sustained another savage blow, too, just as it was beginning to recover from a global near-shutdown lasting almost two years.

And the arts — all our theatres and concert halls around the country — as well as sporting venues are in for yet another bleak midwinter.

Then there's transport: commuters on the London Underground are down 31 per cent week on week, with the added knock-on effect on small businesses that depend on bustling offices in city centres now depleted as working from home returns.

Our fragile economy, burdened by massive debts, looming tax rises and soaring inflation, did not need this new — and in my view, artificial — problem.

And the politics are just as bad as the economics. It was obvious from that Downing Street Press conference that Boris Johnson, who struck a much more upbeat note with his call to give Omicron 'both barrels', did not agree with Professor Whitty's projections of doom.

But it is now the unelected official and his fellow believers in lockdowns and ever more restrictive measures who are setting the agenda and not the Prime Minister.

Voters are recognising and reacting to this failure of political courage and capitulation to experts.

It may account in part for the historic drubbing the Tories suffered in the North Shropshire by-election on Thursday.

As well as the sleaze claims that bedevilled the constituency's former MP, Owen Paterson, the local electorate was outraged by reports last month that their county had 'run out' of ambulances, after all available vehicles were queuing up outside hospitals.

A local NHS 'planning director' blamed 'significant workforce challenges' created — what else? — by Covid.

As many MPs are complaining, in a democracy it is elected representatives who should determine policy — not the unelected and largely unaccountable scientists or advisers.

Politicians are required to look at the bigger picture and make decisions that go beyond the narrow, short-term interests of the medical and scientific establishment.

There is now a worrying chasm developing between the PM and his key advisers. Boris Johnson clearly wants normal life to continue as far as possible. But Whitty and his colleagues seem bent on fomenting anxiety as a precursor to even tougher restrictions in a 'Plan C'.

They seem more preoccupied with safeguarding their reputations at future public inquiries than they do about safeguarding the nation's future well-being.

The chorus line of arch pessimists includes Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, who has warned that Omicron represents 'probably the most significant threat we've had since the start of the pandemic'.

The new NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard is not much better, claiming that hospitals are about to be hit by a wave of admissions 'as big or even bigger' than last winter.

As a doctor, it pains me to say this, but I believe that this climate of dread is being deliberately manufactured by the usual suspects — certain scientists and doctors — in order to impose a new lockdown by stealth, rather than edict.

The alarmist rhetoric and grim forecasts of the past weeks are being deployed precisely so that we will accept more controls in the name of public safety and, of course, the protection of the NHS.

But where is the hard evidence to back these fearful predictions? 'Follow the science' had been one of the favourite mantras of officialdom, yet the science seems pretty thin in this case.

We have been repeatedly told by the 'experts' that the incidence of Omicron is doubling every two days.

At the start of the week, the UK Health Security Agency estimated that new Omicron infections were running at 200,000 per day.

Yesterday the total was 93,045. This was a rise of around 5 per cent on the day before, but hardly the predicted tsunami.

Speaking of accuracy, we should note that NHS boss Ms Pritchard claimed last month that there were '14 times' more Covid patients in hospital than 'this time last year'. That was plain wrong and her comments, for which she apologised, caused outrage.

In fact, the number of inpatients had fallen from more than 11,000 in early November 2020 to around 7,000 in the first week of November 2021.

Far more importantly, the rise in infections does not appear to have translated into any large increase in Covid hospitalisations or deaths so far.

Covid hospital patients have remained steady at less than 8,000 in December (the latest total is 7,611), while the number of daily admissions last week was on average lower than 900.

We know of only 65 patients who have been hospitalised with the Omicron variant and one death.

Deaths of those within 28 days of a positive test for Covid on Thursday actually showed a small week-on-week decline, from 148 to 146. Yesterday's figure was 111.

This brings us to the central flaw in the contrived panic about Omicron. Though the mutation may indeed be 70 times more infectious than previous versions of Covid, the indications are that far from being a lethal new menace, it is much milder in its impact.

It may yet prove to be no more dangerous than the common cold, because, according to the latest research, it seems to replicate ten times more slowly in the lungs.

This is excellent news. If Omicron is to become the dominant strain of Covid in Britain, then its lack of potency means we will all be safer.

Certainly the lesson from South Africa, where Omicron originated, is that concerns have been wildly exaggerated.

Dr Angelique Coetzee, the chair of the South African Medical Association who first alerted the world to Omicron last month, wrote in this paper on Tuesday that she was 'astonished by the extraordinary worldwide reaction' to the variant.

'The symptoms presenting in those with Omicron are very, very mild compared to those we see with the far more dangerous Delta variant,' she wrote.

'It's completely over the top to be talking about Plan Cs or lockdowns,' which would do 'more harm than good'.

Her views were backed up by the release of new analysis from the South African Medical Research Council which showed that the risk of hospitalisation with Omicron is 29 per cent less than with the original Wuhan strain of Covid.

Moreover, patients in hospital with Omicron are less likely to require intensive care.

In the U.S., Dr Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to the President, has also been stressing that, while the jury is still out, the variant appears less severe.

Professor Whitty and his colleagues, however, are so wedded to their narrative of woe that it appears they are dismissing these findings.

To justify their obstinacy, they claim it is too early to draw conclusions from South Africa and that Britain's demographic profile is very different, both older and — even more bizarrely when considering how serious a new variant may be — with far higher levels of vaccination.

They also argue that Omicron may be running as a parallel epidemic alongside Delta. Again, that assertion is not supported by the South African experience.

There, Omicron is not 'building on' Delta, to use Whitty's phrase, but appears to be displacing it. Consider the numbers.

If it does turn out that Omicron infections start to double every two days, then the whole population will be infected within a few months.

Under the current misleading criteria, everyone who dies while suffering from a known Covid infection is classified as a 'Covid death' — even if they are run over by a bus.

Therefore if infections soar, people who die with but not from Covid are bound to rise.

If enough people are infected, you could pin almost the entire weekly death toll in the UK — currently around 12,000 — on Covid. But that would be wrong — and an abuse of statistics.

The irony is that if the most lurid forecasts of the lockdown addicts are realised, with the pandemic reaching every household, then all those oppressive measures they cherish most — such as social distancing, bans on large gatherings, venue closures and vaccine passports — will be largely useless.

The tidal wave would be too big, the virus too infectious. Vaccinated people can still spread the virus.

This makes the faith in vaccine passports — at, for example, nightclubs and music venues — idiotic, since the greatest spreaders of the virus are currently vaccinated people aged under 40.

If Omicron unfolds as expected, then a further crackdown is just empty gesture politics, designed to give the illusion of protection while devastating businesses and upending Christmas plans for millions.

And in fact it would be worse than meaningless: it would be counter-productive. Lockdown directly undermines the fight against the virus by preventing the spread of naturally acquired Covid immunity in the population.

Such immunity is a far stronger weapon than hiding behind locked doors. In Europe, Belgium had one of the toughest lockdowns, yet the country's death rate is far higher than Sweden's, which had no lockdown at all.

In addition to the economic vandalism and ruination of businesses wrought by lockdowns, there are also the huge costs of furlough and welfare that have wrecked the public finances, with Government debt rising to £2.2 trillion and the tax burden at its highest level for 70 years.

In truth, Covid has been allowed to grossly distort our priorities for too long. Take the horrendous impact on mental health caused by isolation and the long waiting lists for non-Covid treatment and missed diagnostic tests and screenings that will result in tens of thousands of unneccessary deaths from cancer, heart disease, strokes and other illnesses in the years to come.

Domestic abuse and, as we have seen in tragic cases in recent weeks, child abuse, have risen during the pandemic, while social problems such as excess drinking and gambling have rocketed.

Then there is the impact on schoolchidren and university students whose life chances will have been dramatically altered by the consequences of Covid.

Freedom used to be one of the pillars of our society, but it has been dangerously eroded in the past two years as the state has assumed repressive powers that would not have looked out of place in 1980s East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down.

Nearly two years on from the start of the outbreak here in Britain, the official anti-Covid strategy is turning out to be profoundly ill-conceived.

Yet we remain trapped in Professor Whitty's depressing cycle of restrictions, with no prospect of normality returning.

Flailing around, wallowing in hysteria, adopting impractical policies and subverting democracy, the Chief Medical Officer is out of his depth. He has to go if we are ever to escape this nightmare.

Professor Angus Dalgleish is an oncologist at a London teaching hospital.