JUST when we were hoping the light at the end of the long Covid tunnel was getting bigger, it turns out to belong to an express train called Omicron.

Our politicians and the scientific experts are not mincing their words.

Following a Cobra meeting between the UK Government and the devolved administrations, Michael Gove, England’s Levelling Up Secretary, emerged grim-faced and admitted the projected numbers of infections meant Britain was facing a “deeply concerning situation”.

Nicola Sturgeon warned Scotland - and presumably by extension the rest of the UK - could be facing a “potential tsunami of infections” in the coming days and weeks.

On Friday, the UK’s daily number of Covid cases reached its highest level in almost a year at 58,194 as experts warned the speed of Omicron’s spread meant the new variant could become the dominant strain as early as next week.

The UK Health Security Agency said if the new strain’s growth continued unabated, there would be more 100,000 cases a day by the end of the month.

In London, 30% of new cases have the Omicron variant, which was only reported two weeks ago. Its rate of spread is doubling every three, or even two, days.

Professor Eleanor Riley, an infectious disease expert at Edinburgh University, said Omicron was spreading so quickly people were “very likely” to meet an infected person unless they were “living the life of a hermit”.

The most graphic illustration of just how transmissible the new variant is came this week from Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, who explained: “If you have a room of 100 people and a single unknown Omicron case is in that room, you could in the days after that find 50, 60 or 70 positives.”

Professor Neil Ferguson, the leading epidemiologist from Imperial College London, said the UK was already experiencing a “very explosive wave of infection” from Omicron, which could lead to “quite an explosive wave of hospitalisations,” depending on the severity of disease caused by the new variant. He suggested the peak would arrive “sometime in January”.

While it must be stressed the data remains patchy and more time is needed for precision, the projected numbers are scary. Yesterday, the rest of us got to see what ministers have seen.

Government advisers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said a best case scenario for England would see a peak of more than 2,000 daily hospital admissions; they are currently at 700. The most optimistic projection from now until April 30 is a total of 175,000 hospital admissions and 24,700 deaths.

Tougher measures like restrictions on pubs and restaurants, the closure of some entertainment venues and restrictions on indoor gathering could help control the Omicron wave, reducing hospital admissions by 53,000 and deaths by 7,600.

But under a worst case scenario with no extra measures, daily hospital admissions could hit 9,000, double the January 2021 peak, and over the period to April 30, the total could top 490,000 with as many as 74,800 extra deaths.

Given these numbers, it is no surprise our political leaders are not ruling anything out. And Downing St, having just announced Plan B measures for south of the border, may soon be forced to consider a Plan C of increased restrictions, including the wider use of vaccine passports as seen on the continent.

Last week, Boris Johnson suggested there might be the need for a “national conversation” on mandatory vaccines but within 24 hours Sajid Javid, England’s Health Secretary, publicly dismissed their use, branding it “unethical”. Which suggests it’s not going to happen unless the PM wants to lose a swath of frontline ministers.

On Tuesday a dramatic Commons showdown looms as MPs debate and vote on the new regulations for England.

It has been predicted the PM could face his biggest backbench rebellion with more than 60 Tory MPs defying their leader. Knowing some Cabinet ministers are equally unhappy at the new restrictions, the question is: will any resign?

Embarrassingly for the PM, his only route to getting the new regulations implemented is on the back of Labour votes; another sign of political weakness.

And yet the dire situation Omicron now poses could concentrate minds and instil enough fear in would-be rebels to make them hesitate as this weekend the whips go about their business in the art of gentle - and perhaps not-so-gentle - persuasion to change minds.

Indeed, Gove, noting how even the double-jabbed could become infected with Omicron, insisted such facts meant fresh action was needed. “I’m confident people will examine these proposals seriously, soberly and thoughtfully, and…conclude, on balance, it is right to act,” he said.

One Government adviser, Professor John Edmunds, accepted that the new restrictions, such as working from home, would economically impact businesses like cafes and pubs but insisted they were a “necessary evil”.

The early analysis that two jabs are an “insufficient” barrier against the latest variant is worrying but, thankfully, three give 75% protection. However, the problem is only around a third of the British public have had their boosters.

The equation of increased transmissibility plus two-thirds of people with inadequate protection equals a dire situation.

Even, as everyone hopes, the scientists conclude Omicron is milder than the Delta variant it is replacing, the sheer number of infections could mean coronavirus-stricken patients will quickly overwhelm our hospitals.

The race is on to inoculate as many of the five million vaccine refuseniks as possible and to accelerate getting booster jabs into people’s arms.

On Friday, 469,479 booster jabs were reported, the second highest daily rate, taking the rolling average to a record high of 392,585. But there is a long way to go in a short space of time.

January 2022 could prove to be this country’s most trying time with Covid. We might not be able to stop the Omicron express but with solidarity and purpose we could slow it down significantly, enabling us to protect as many of our fellow citizens as we possibly can.