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UK Covid cases should drop in next one to three weeks, says expert

The Al Abbas Mosque, Birmingham, which is being used as a covid vaccination centre. Picture date: Thursday January 21, 2021. Pic by Jacob King

By Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor

Covid cases should start to drop across the UK in the next one to three weeks, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has suggested.

Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose data was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said infection rates may already be plateauing in London and Omicron numbers have been so high they cannot be sustained “forever”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think I’m cautiously optimistic that infection rates in London in that key 18 to 50 age group – which has been driving the Omicron epidemic – may possibly have plateaued.

“It’s too early to say whether they’re going down yet, but I think… this epidemic has spread so quickly in that group it hasn’t had time to really spread into the older age groups, which are at much greater risk of severe outcomes and hospitalisation, so we may see a different pattern in hospitalisations.

“Hospitalisations are still generally going up across the country and we may see high levels for some weeks.

“I would say that, with an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week, maybe already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to three weeks.

“Whether they then drop precipitously, or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with Delta back in July of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau, remains to be seen.

“It’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of opening schools again will be.”

Prof Ferguson said the Omicron variant had not had much time to infect pupils before schools shut for the Christmas break, and a rise in cases is now expected.

“We expect to now see quite high infection levels – of mild infection I should emphasise – in school-aged children.”

He added that the “good news” about Omicron is that “it is certainly less severe” than previous variants of Covid and that has helped keep hospital numbers down compared with previous peaks.

“And then the vaccines – as we always expected they would – are holding up against severe disease and against severe outcomes well.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be as, as the Prime Minister said, a difficult few weeks for the NHS.”

Meanwhile, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, told Sky News it is not yet certain that future variants of Covid-19 “will be causing mild disease”.

He said more time is needed to evaluate whether the virus will become milder, adding: “If indeed we do have ongoing problems with more severe disease, updated vaccines for the new variants may be one of the ways that we manage living with the virus in the future.”

On whether people will need to be vaccinated every six months, Sir Andrew said: “Well, it’s just not – from a global perspective – affordable, sustainable or deliverable to give fourth doses to everyone on the planet every six months.

“Remember that, today, less than 10% of people in low-income countries have even had their first dose, so the whole idea of regular fourth doses globally is just not sensible.

“Now, it may be that, as the science evolves, that we can work out who the most vulnerable are in populations and target future boosters to those individuals to maintain their protection.

“But for the vast majority of people who are vaccinated, the risk now is extremely low of severe Covid, for those who have had three doses, and it’s likely that we’ll reach a point where we’re focusing those booster doses on those who most need them.

“And of course, at this moment, we don’t know what that looks like. Does that mean that we need updated vaccines each year like we do with flu? We need more data to make those decisions.”

It came as minister for vaccines and public health Maggie Throup told broadcasters that the Government’s Plan B “is working”.

Asked if ministers are listening to health professionals and prepared to bring in more restrictions, she told Sky News: “As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we have got Plan B, which is people working from home, the Covid pass, face coverings and obviously the vaccine programme, which is so, so important.”

She added: “Plan B is working, as you can see from the number of hospitalisations. It’s far, far fewer than this time last year and that’s so important as well, that the vaccines are working, the measures for people to work from home are working.

“The Prime Minister said that Plan B is working and there’ll be a Cabinet meeting today, and I don’t see any reason why we need to change. It’s important we do follow the data.”

Ms Throup said she is “not sure” how many Britons are currently in self-isolation, nor could she put a number on how many NHS trusts have declared a critical incident over Covid-19.

She added: “The vaccine is working and that’s the best way to stop the transmission, and to stop hospitalisations and for our life to get back to normal.”

Elsewhere, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the staffing situation in hospitals is “almost impossible” as leaders try to manage their resources.

He told Times Radio that, for many, “the most pressing element of all” is the number of staff who are absent due to Covid.

He added that hospital admissions seem to have “perhaps plateaued in London or there may be a second peak after the new year now, but it’s rising across the rest of Britain”.

Meanwhile, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said at least “half a dozen” NHS hospitals have declared a critical incident as they try to respond to Covid.

However, the health leader said fears raised before Christmas of a huge rise in the number of seriously ill older people needing critical care and mechanical ventilation has not occurred yet.

“There are a number of chief executives who are saying, if we were going to see that surge, we probably would have seen the beginnings of it up to now, so there are glimmers of hope,” he said.

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