Experts say emerging evidence that Omicron Covid is less severe than Delta will not be enough to stop a ‘large’ wave of people entering hospital in the coming weeks
A “large wave” of Covid hospital admissions “should be expected soon”, the government’s scientific advisors have said.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) gave the grim pre-Christmas verdict despite growing evidence Omicron is milder than Delta.
UK Health Security Agency chief Dr Jenny Harries said while it was only early data, it did give a “glimmer of Christmas hope”.
But SAGE, which considered some of the evidence yesterday, also warned Omicron has so far largely infected younger people who are less likely to get seriously ill.
“As infections move into older age groups, a large wave of hospital admissions should be expected,” SAGE’s minutes say.
“The timing of the wave of hospitalisations will depend primarily on the timing of the wave of infections in older age groups.
“It is not possible to predict when this will be, particularly given changes to mixing patterns over the festive period.
“But such a wave should be expected soon given infections are increasing rapidly in all age groups and regions, and earlier in London.”
SAGE met yesterday and said there is “an apparent slowing of growth rates” of the virus across the country.
However, “doubling times in most of the country are still in the region of 2-3 days and, importantly, test positivity rates are still rising”, SAGE said.
The apparent slowing down of growth could be “genuine” and related to Plan B or people self-policing their own behaviour before Christmas.
It could also be a sign that so many people in some sub-groups of society have been infected, there are few of them left to infect, SAGE said.
But SAGE added: “The number of people in hospital with Omicron infection continues to increase with a doubling time of around 4-5 days.
“Infections have been concentrated in younger age groups to date; hospitalisation rates will increase as older age groups are infected.”
SAGE accepted “multiple analyses” suggest Omicron is less severe than Delta – with anything from a 15% to an 80% cut in hospitalisations.
Yet even with Omicron being less severe, hospital admissions could peak at the level seen in the last big wave – just under 5,000 a day – as so many people are catching the virus.
SAGE said: “The peak in admissions is highly uncertain but, even with a reduction in severity, may be comparable to or higher than previous peaks in the absence of significant behaviour change or further interventions.
“Occupancy will depend on admissions and will also scale with length of stay (which may be reduced but there are no firm data yet).”
SAGE also said there is “some preliminary evidence emerging” of changes in symptoms – with loss of taste or smell being reported less frequently.
The experts repeated their warning on Monday that decisions on Covid restrictions should be taken as early as possible, and “even a few days” can “potentially make a significant difference”.
That is despite Boris Johnson putting off any decision or announcement until at least December 27.
The minutes say: “The earlier interventions happen, and the more stringent they are, the more likely they are to be effective.”
“Earlier interventions can produce the same or greater effect at lower stringency and applied for a shorter duration than interventions that come late.”
It’s understood Boris Johnson is planning some kind of Covid update next week, on December 27 at the earliest – but it may only come later in the week.
If Boris Johnson does introduce restrictions, it’s thought he has considered options of optional guidance, or full-blown Covid laws in England.
If he only introduces guidance, Parliament will not need to be recalled.
If he introduces Covid laws, he has pledged to recall Parliament before they take force – a process which normally takes at least two days, and had a week’s notice last Christmas.
While there is thought to be no legal minimum notice period to haul back MPs, there are logistical problems of getting Parliament’s staff back, and Tory rebels would be angry at interrupting their holidays.
A senior government source insisted a recall before New Year was still not ruled out, and played down suggestions in the Telegraph that it would not happen.
Data is being collected daily rather than the Prime Minister waiting for one defining report after Christmas. However, experts have told him data on people in hospital should start to be clearer in the week before New Year.
UKHSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries warned despite the data released last night, there is a “really fine balance”.
She said the apparent lower risk of serious disease was “great news” – but Omicron was also “a highly transmissible variant that evades some of our immune defences”.
Dr Harries also warned huge staff sickness rates in the NHS could force new restrictions.
She said: “Ministers will look at all of the data that we have available and that isn’t simply what the epidemiology is saying, it’s how it’s impacting society.
“So for example, we have very high rates of individuals off sick – we know that particularly in London, around one in 35 have currently got Omicron.
“Now that’s having an impact on the workforce. So these are not simply about hospitalisation rates.”