Professor Neil Ferguson, who was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the infection rates driving the Omicron epidemic may have peaked
Covid cases should start to drop across the UK in the next one to three weeks, an expert dubbed Professor Lockdown has said.
Prof Ferguson, of Imperial College London and Sage member, was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020 after his modelling predicted an NHS meltdown.
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.”
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One NHS employee in ten is currently off work and this is taking a toll on patient care, with some non-urgent treatments and routine operations being cancelled across the country.
At least six hospital trusts have declared a ‘critical incident’ in recent days.
Morecambe Bay NHS Trust was the latest to declare a critical incident late Monday evening as health leaders in Lancashire said they were braced for “a tsunami of Omicron cases”.
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, public health director for Lancashire County Council, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program:
“Lancashire is beginning to experience what London did at the beginning of last month and, of course, London is better resourced and the infrastructures are well organised compared to other regions, so we are bracing ourselves for a tsunami of Omicron cases in Lancashire.
“We are clearly seeing a shift from 20s and 30s and 40-year-olds being affected by Omicron to a clear shift to a more 60-plus age group being affected, and that is what is causing us concern as well as the immediate concern being absence, staff absence, both in the NHS and education – schools are just going to re-open this week.
“But this is all meaning that we are not able to concentrate on the non-Covid issues, that’s really needing to be addressed immediately as well, so it’s a double challenge we face: not only fighting Covid but all the other pent-up demand and need due to non-Covid issues.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said or many hospitals “the most pressing element of all” was staff absences due to Covid.
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He told Times Radio that even without Covid, the NHS is 100,000 staff short, “so we have a long-term failure in terms of workforce planning and resourcing”.
He added: “The problem with staff absence is that it is unpredictable and lumpy in the sense that you don’t know where somebody is going to get sick and, when somebody does get sick, it’s then more likely that other people in that team will get sick and hospitals and healthcare systems are complex, they’re inter-dependent, so … if you lose paramedics then the ambulance can’t go out, and if ambulances can’t go out then that means there’s more pressure on other services.
“So, those interdependencies and the unpredictability of staff absence means NHS leaders having to work around the clock just thinking about how they can deploy their resources best to deal with the most urgent and pressing needs.
George Cracknell Wright/LNP)
“Even using all their imagination and creativity, it is becoming almost impossible, which is why we see hospitals declaring critical incidents.”
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.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.